What is melanin?

In our last article we talked about the epidermis which is one of the most important parts of the skin. We will continue this month and discuss another important part of the skin which is the melanin. Similar to the epidermis, melanin is another term that continually comes up when we discuss the skin and important aspects of  skincare.

Let’s define melanin

Melanin is a key substance in our body. The pigmentations that are found in our hair, eyes and skin are produced by melanin. Those individuals that produce more melanin will have darker skin, eyes and hair. The amount of melanin is based on genetics and our ancestral pasts. The amount of sun exposure our ancestral pasts had impacts the amount of melanin we produce today. So, as you can see melanin is deeply rooted in our past.

Melanin is a substance that can be found both in humans and animals. Melanin is a compound polymer. You may not be familiar with the term polymer and is good that we define it. Polymers are any class of natural synthetic substances composed of very large molecules, called macromolecules that are multiple of simpler chemical units called monomers. The polymers in melanin originate from amino acid and tyrosine.

In addition to being responsible for providing colour to our skin, hair and eyes melanin has a protective role also. This protective role melanin plays is responsible for fending off our skin from harmful UV rays from the sun. This makes melanin responsible for protecting our cells from sun damage.

Places in our body where melanin is produced

Now that we have become more familiar with what melanin is and what it does is good to know also where in our body it is produced. Melanocytes are the place where melanin is produced. Melanocytes cells are situated in different parts of our body.  You can find melanocytes in the deepest layers of the skin, hair, pupils, irises, areas of the brain, areas of the adrenal gland and part of the inner ear.

The different types of melanin

Similar to other substances in our body that have different types, melanin also comes in different types. Let’s now define and discuss the different types of melanin.

Eumelanin is the first type of melanin that we will discuss. Eumelanin can be broken down further into two different types which are black and brown. The dark colours in the skin, eyes and hair are produced by Eumelanin. Varying amounts of brown and black eumelanin can be found in those individuals with black or brown hair. Those with blond hair have no black eumelanin and a small quantity of brown eumelanin.

Pheomelanin is another melanin type and pigment. It can be found in areas of the body that are pink such as the lips and nipples. When there is an equal amount of eumelanin and pheomelanin red hair is produced.

The last type of melanin is the neuromelanin and is different than eumelanin and pheomelanin. Neuromelanin is not responsible for the colour of things you see but rather for things that you do not see such as neurons.

Melanin and skin colour

Most humans have the same number of melanocytes. But the amount of melanin produced by melanocytes are different. The colour of our hair, skin and eyes are due to the unique combination of eumelanin and pheomelanin we have. Those with darker skin and hair generally tend to have more melanin. Those with less melanin have lighter skin and hair.

Melanin also plays a part when it comes to freckles. Those individuals who have melanocytes positioned very close to each other in clusters tend to have freckles.

Melanin and skin protection

Melanin also plays a protective role as we mentioned earlier. By spending more time in the sun our skin produces more melanin. The UV rays absorbed by melanin in our skin are then moved and redistributed towards the top layers of the skin. Melanin also protects the genetic material that are stored in our cells by not allowing harmful UV rays to reach them. But as we have said in our previous articles you cannot allocate the job of sun protection solely to melanin. Applying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing are essential when it comes to sun protection.

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