Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What is Melanin? Understanding Nature’s Sunscreen

From sun tanning to sun spots and age spots, melanin plays a key role in your skin’s appearance and health. Surprisingly, though, many people don’t know what melanin is or exactly what role it plays in skin and skin care. Melanin controls the color of your skin, but it also gives you protection against UV rays and sun damage and it can also result in unflattering and unwanted dark spots. To truly understand how to care for your skin for healthy, undamaged skin, you’ll need to understand melanin.

Melanin 101: What It Is and Where to Find It
In basic terms, melanin is a pigment (the natural coloring matter of a plant or animal tissue if you like scientific definitions). The pigment melanin is formed by special cells called melanocytes. Both melanocytes and melanin are found in the outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis. So, in basic terms, melanin is the material that gives your skin its color. It’s formed by special skin cells called melanocytes that are found in the epidermis of your skin.

Melanin and Your Skin Color
While melanin’s primary role in your biology is to protect you from UV radiation (we’ll talk more about that in a bit), it’s also ultimately responsible for the color of your skin. There are actually two types of melanin. Pheomelanin is a melanin pigment that is more yellow or red in color and is more common in people with lighter skin. Eumelanin is a melanin pigment that is more dark brown or black in color and more common in people with darker skin. What determines how light or dark your skin is (or which kind of melanin you have more of)? The answer is a combination of genetics and thousands of years of biological adaptation. People who live and developed in climates closer to the equator where the risk of UV damage is the most significant developed darker melanin over time. Today, genetic passing of melanin combined with the ongoing development of human genetics creates an entire range of melanin and skin color ranges.
Melanin and UV Protection
The most important thing to remember as you read this is that just because melanin is nature’s sunscreen, it doesn’t mean that you don’t’ need to wear products with SPF and PA protection every time that you’re exposed to the sun. (In case you need it, here’s a primer on understanding sun protection terms.) However, melanin’s natural role in the body is to serve as a shield against UV rays, preventing sunburn as well as other damage to the skin. You can see this most obviously in the form of a sun tan. Tanning is the result of the melanocytes producing more (and bigger) melanin granules in your skin as your exposure to UV radiation increases. The increase in melanin is meant to build up a larger “shield” against the harmful UV rays and a side effect is the temporary darkening of your skin. It’s also important to remember that people with lighter skin, those with more pheomelanin, are less able to tan than darker-skinned individuals with more eumelanin. That’s why people with lighter skin often burn more or experience more skin damage from UV protection and need to be even more diligent about applying sun screen and sun block products.