Have you ever wondered what gives your skin, eyes, or hair their hue? It’s a group of natural pigments called melanin, byproducts of the oxidation of an amino acid in the skin that’s found in certain ligaments and tissues throughout our bodies. The more melanin a person’s body produces, the darker the pigment appears.
But what happens when the body doesn’t produce any melanin? It’s not immediately dangerous, actually, but lack of pigmentation in the hair, skin, and eyes will cause permanent, extremely pale white coloration. Commonly called albinism, this condition is relatively rare, affecting only about one in 17,000 people.
The Different Types of Albinism
Its formal name, oculocutaneous albinism, refers to the group of disorders characterized by the lack of pigmentation. There are two types of albinism: Type 1 and Type 2.
Type 1 albinism comes as a result of defects at birth that inhibit melanin production, so a person will show symptoms from birth.
Type 2 albinism is caused by a defective “P” gene, so a person is born with slight pigmentation but may exhibit more severe symptoms over time.
Less common symptoms of albinism include crossed eyes, light sensitivity, rapid eye movements, astigmatism, and functional blindness.
All types of albinism are genetic, meaning the condition is caused by mutations in a person’s genes. If two people have albinism or carry the mutated genes, they are at a higher risk of giving birth to a child with the condition. However, albinism is a recessive trait, meaning the genes can lie dormant in both parents without ever showing symptoms. So, if two parents don’t appear to have albinism, that doesn’t necessarily mean their child won’t have it. Genetic testing is the most certain way to diagnose an individual, though some doctors will diagnose the condition based on a person’s appearance or vision tests.
Is Albinism Dangerous?
Albinism is generally not a dangerous condition to have, so don’t worry if someone you care is an albino. The condition can affect a patient’s vision — and in some cases, can lead to blindness — which is why those who are albino sometimes have red eyes. For the most part, these consequences are treatable with glasses or surgery, and won’t affect a person’s projected lifespan.
However, there are a few things to be wary of if you’re someone dealing with lack of pigmentation of any kind, especially of the skin. Most commonly, people with extremely fair skin are at a higher risk of sunburn and, consequently, developing skin cancer. That risk goes up when you have a condition like albinism.
Hermansky Pudlak Syndrome (and other associated conditions)
Another term you might hear in reference to albinism is Hermansky Pudlak syndrome, which is characterized by three key symptoms: lack of skin pigmentation, blood platelet abnormalities with prolonged bleeding, and visual impairment.
Other conditions do have the potential to trigger localized albinism, meaning a lack of pigmentation occurs in specific areas of the body. These include Chediak-Higashi syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, and waardenburg syndrome. All of these conditions are similar, but have subtle differences that distinguish them. Vitiligo is another common skin condition where melanin deposits in the skin disappear over time. Make sure you’re having an open discussion with your doctor or dermatologist to pinpoint exactly which type of albinism you have so you can come up with an appropriate treatment and management plan.
Aside from physical conditions, there are a number of psychological consequences that people with albinism face, especially children. Some find the term “albino” dehumanizing, and may experience bullying or judgement from others based on their appearance.
Lack of pigmentation has the potential to cause an individual to look very different from their family members, or from people they associate with their cultural or racial background. These factors can contribute to feelings of isolation and otherness, which could ultimately lead to depression or anxiety.
Is There a Cure for Albinism?
While there is no known cure for albinism, there is support available for patients coping with the disorder. If you have albinism, you’ll want to consult your dermatologist regularly to ensure you’re properly protecting your body from your skin’s heightened sensitivity to the sun, and an optometrist to monitor potential deterioration of your eyesight. If a child you know if experiencing bullying, contact the proper authority figures and make sure the child receives the care they need. If you’re experiencing psychological distress or bullying yourself, seek help from a mental health professional.
Even if you’re not experiencing severe emotional distress, it might be a good idea to seek out local support groups and communities for people with albinism. After all, the end goal is to love the skin you’re in regardless of the pigments in your eyes, hair, or skin. This is a stunning collection of images of Albino people.