Melanin

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on October 11, 2023
6 min read

Melanin is a natural substance that determines the color of hair, skin, and eye s in people and animals. Special cells called melanocytes make melanin.

Everyone has the same number of melanocytes, but some people make more melanin than others. If these cells make just a little melanin, your hair, skin, and eyes can be very light. If your cells make more, then your hair, skin, and eyes will be darker.

The amount of melanin your body makes also depends on your genes. If your parents have a certain amount of melanin, you could have the same amount and a similar skin tone.

Where is melanin in your body?

The cells that make melanin can be found in different parts of your body, including:

  • The deepest layer of your skin
  • Parts of your eye, including the pupil and the iris
  • Your hair
  • Part of your inner ear
  • Areas of your brain and adrenal glands

 

People have three types of melanin:

Eumelanin makes mostly dark colors in hair, eyes, and skin, and includes two types: brown and black. If you have black or brown hair, it comes from different mixes of black and brown eumelanin. Blonde hair comes from having a small amount of brown eumelanin and no black eumelanin.

Pheomelanin colors the pinkish parts of your body, such as your lips and nipples. Red hair results from the presence of equal amounts of pheomelanin and eumelanin, while strawberry blonde hair comes from brown eumelanin and pheomelanin.

While it's in your skin, pheomelanin doesn't protect against sun damage like eumelanin does.

Neuromelanin controls the colors of neurons, which are nerve cells that send messages throughout your body. It isn't involved with your appearance.

 

Melanin can protect your body in a couple of ways:

Ultraviolet (UV) rays. Melanin helps protect your skin from these harmful rays, including blue light and UVA, UVB, and UVC. Melanin absorbs them and spreads them out in your skin's top layer. That keeps them from doing damage deeper inside your skin.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are molecules made during your body's natural cell processes. When they build up, they can cause early aging, stress, and even illnesses such as diabetes and cancer. Melanin finds these molecules and gets rid of them before they can cause damage.

When you're in the sun, your body makes more melanin. That gives you some protection from harmful UV rays.

But that process doesn't happen fast enough to keep you completely safe. If you're sunburned or your skin turns slightly darker, it's being damaged.

You can also get sunburn if you have dark skin. Symptoms on your skin can include:

  • Sensitivity
  • Tightness
  • Itchiness
  • Warmth

There's a common thought that if you have dark skin, you don't need protection from the sun because your skin produces more melanin. This isn't true. The highest level of sun protection that melanin can provide is equal to an SPF of 13 in people with the darkest skin tones. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends everyone use at least an SPF 15.

Another belief is that if you have dark skin, you aren't at risk of getting skin cancer. This is also false.

Studies show the rates of skin cancer in people of color are lower than in white people; however, once cancer is diagnosed it's usually at a later stage and has a worse outlook. The 5-year survival rate from melanoma is about 70% in Black people vs. 94% in white people. And, if you have dark skin, melanoma is more likely to appear in places that don't see the sun, like the bottom of your feet or palms of your hands.

It's important for people of all races to wear sunscreen daily and to have their skin checked every year by a dermatologist, a doctor whose specialty is skin. This is especially true if you notice changes or find any new spots or bumps.

Issues with melanin are linked to several skin pigment conditions, including:

Albinism. This rare condition results from very little melanin. People with albinism have white hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, and they may have vision problems. They should wear sun protection to avoid sun damage. There is no treatment.

Melasma. Melasma is a chronic condition where you get brownish patches on your face. Researchers think it’s caused by hormones, birth control pills, and spending time in the sun.

The treatment that works the best for melasma usually includes a combination of sun protection, prescription creams placed on the skin, and cosmetic procedures such as laser treatment and chemical peels. It can, however, return after treatment.

Vitiligo. When you lose melanocytes, you get smooth, white patches on your skin. This is known as vitiligo. There's no cure, but treatment includes dyes, UV light therapy, light-sensitive medicines, corticosteroid creams, and surgery.

Pigment loss after skin damage. Sometimes after your skin is burned, blistered, or infected, your body can’t replace melanin in the area that is damaged. You won’t need treatment but you can cover the area with makeup if it bothers you.

Parkinson's disease. In this disease, neuromelanin in your brain drops as brain cells in an area called the substantia nigra die. Normally, the amount of neuromelanin in the brain increases as we get older.

Hearing loss. Melanin seems to play a role in hearing. Early studies show a link between too little melanin and hearing loss or deafness.

Can you have too much melanin?

Hyperpigmentation, which is another condition affected by how much melanin you make, happens when your body produces too much melanin. It can cause areas of your skin to become darker than the rest. This condition is harmless but can be permanent. Talk to your dermatologist if you think you have hyperpigmentation.

For people with vitiligo, prescription medications and special UV treatment are available that can help your skin make melanin. Researchers are also studying whether there's a natural way to do this with certain nutrients.

Some supplements and other products in the market claim to darken your skin, but they are not approved as safe or effective by the FDA. These include:

Supplements

Products known as tanning pills are supposed to tint your skin without exposing it to UV rays. If you use these pills, you take in large amounts of an added color that's similar to the pigment that makes carrots orange (beta-carotene). The color is carried through your body and can cause a change in your skin tone, ranging from orange to brown.

These pills don't boost your melanin, and the high levels of color additives can cause harm, including vision damage and liver and skin concerns.

Shots and nasal sprays

Tanning shots contain a chemical called melanotan, which is supposed to tell your skin cells to make more melanin. These injections can cause nausea and raise your risk of skin cancer.

Lotions or pills 

Different from bronzers or self-tanning lotions, products known as tanning accelerators contain tyrosine, a compound that's supposed to help your body's natural tanning process. These are also unapproved and may be harmful.

Melanin is what gives your eyes, hair, and skin their color. The more melanin your body naturally has, the darker the tone in these areas. You make more melanin when you're in the sun, which protects your skin from damage up to a certain extent. Whether you have more melanin or less, it's important to wear sunscreen every day and to have regular cancer screenings.

What does melanin do in the body?

Melanin gives color, or pigment, to your skin, eyes, and hair. It also helps keep your cells safe from sun damage by soaking up UV rays that can be dangerous at high levels.

How does skin get melanin? Special cells called melanocytes make melanin. Your genes control how much your body naturally has. Your skin also makes more melanin when you're out in the sun.