Hey guys, Sandra Lee, M.D. (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), here!

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Melanin 101: Everything You Need to Know about Skin Pigmentation

If you’re into skincare and beauty, you’ve probably heard the word melanin before. You might know that people with deeper skin tones have more melanin in their skin — you might have even heard your friends with darker skin refer to themselves as melanin goddesses. But what exactly is melanin? Does it impact how much time you should spend in the sun?

What is melanin?

Melanin is the pigment that creates our skin tone — whether that’s more brown, red, or yellow — and everyone’s body produces melanin. Melanin is also what adds color to your hair, your eyes, and even areas of your brain and adrenal glands. It’s created by cells called melanocytes, found within your skin. Melanin can take a few different forms, but the main types of melanin are eumelanin and pheomelanin.

Eumelanin is responsible for browner hues, so people with darker skin tones and hair colors might have more of it. Pheomelanin is responsible for reddish colors, so redheads may have more pheomelanin present in their skin. Biologically, our bodies evolved to produce more melanin when people were living in climates that were getting a lot of sun exposure (like Africa) to protect our skin from the sun.

On the other end of the spectrum, skin conditions like albinism and vitiligo occur when melanin is entirely, or almost entirely, missing from the skin.

How does my body know to produce melanin?

Melanin is essentially your body’s natural way of warding off some of the more adverse effects of those UV rays. The UVA and UVB rays that hit you when you’re out in the sun are damaging to your skin’s natural barrier. To combat those UV rays hitting your skin and attempting to cause damage, your body produces melanin. This melanin production is what changes your skin color — your skin will tan, or it will burn. 

If I have more melanin, do I need to wear sunscreen?

It’s correct to say that people with darker skin tones have more melanin. If melanin helps us not get a sunburn by protecting us from UV rays, then people of color shouldn’t need sunscreen, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

That natural protection from melanin can only go so far. UV rays also can cause your skin cells to mutate, and that mutation is what causes skin cancer. So even if you’re not seeing a burn, those harmful UV rays are permeating the deeper layers of your skin, causing cell mutation, and possibly skin cancer.

Sun exposure can also intensify the color of any dark marks you already have on your skin. In other words, those dark marks from your old breakouts that you’ve been dying to get rid of (what dermatologists refer to as hyperpigmentation) will just get darker when you go out and sunbathe.

Moral of the story?

Anyone, of any skin tone, can get skin cancer. Therefore, it’s super important to use sunscreen every single day! You should be applying a facial sunscreen, or a moisturizer with sunscreen of at least SPF 15 every morning before you leave the house. And be sure to reapply if you’re going out into the sun for extended periods of time — the FDA (and dermatologists!) advise reapplication every two hours, or more often if you’re sweating or swimming!

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