What is Melanin Pigment?

Andy Josiah

Melanin pigment, or simply melanin, is a compound of dark brown to black pigmentation that can be found in several parts of the body of humans and animals. It is most commonly associated with skin color, although the eyes and hair also contain melanin. It is produced by a class of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes, which are located in the bottom layer of the skin's outer layer, known as the epidermis. When melanocytes create melanin pigment, a process called melanogenesis, it creates a color that is permanent.

A person with an uneven distribution of melanin's hand.
A person with an uneven distribution of melanin's hand.

As the main determinant of skin pigmentation, melanin pigment indicates greater concentration with darker skin and lesser concentration with lighter skin. People who have limited or absolutely no melanin develop a condition called albinism. Everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, has more or less the same number of melanocytes. Melanin pigment is considered a derivative of tyrosine, which is an amino acid that cells use for the synthesis of proteins.

Red-haired people are more likely to have pheomelanin, one of the two major melanin pigments.
Red-haired people are more likely to have pheomelanin, one of the two major melanin pigments.

The two major types of melanin pigment are eumelanin and pheomelanin. The more common of the two, eumelanin, is the pigment that is found in darker-skinned people. It is also responsible for coloring the hair black, brown, grey and yellow, as well as the areola, which is the darker circular area surrounding each nipple of the breast. Pheomelanin is more closely associated with fairer-skinned people. It is responsible for giving hair a color that roughly ranges from red to yellow, which is why it is more common with red-haired individuals.

Melanin covers the iris and protects it from the sun's rays.
Melanin covers the iris and protects it from the sun's rays.

Besides melanogenesis, melanin pigment can be produced by DNA damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This process is most commonly induced by tanning, which involves darkening the skin, usually by the sun's ultraviolet rays or tanning booths. This type of melanin production, however, unlike melanogenesis, does not cause permanent pigmentation.

The production of melanin for skin color is influenced by exposure to sunlight.
The production of melanin for skin color is influenced by exposure to sunlight.

Melanin pigment acts as a photoprotectant, which means that it lessens the amount of harm that UV radiation does to the skin. Eumelanin is a much better photoprotectant than pheomelanin, which has a higher risk of becoming a carcinogen, or a skin cancer-causing agent. Higher concentrations of melanin, though, while limiting exposure to sunlight, deprives the skin of getting the agent needed to produce vitamin D.

The same logic applies to the eyes. The melanin that colors the iris—that thin, circular structure that regulates the amount of light going to the retina—protects it from the sun's potentially harmful rays. People with lighter-colored irises are at larger risk.

Light-skinned people are susceptible to skin damage and cancers because of their relative lack of melanin.
Light-skinned people are susceptible to skin damage and cancers because of their relative lack of melanin.

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Discussion Comments


I have a pet rabbit with no melanin whatsoever. He has completely white fur and red eyes, which I found intimidating at first. I automatically associate red with blood, but now that I have come to adore this bunny, I am no longer troubled by his eye color.

I found out from the man I bought my white rabbit that the fur of a bunny can only have two pigments - dark brown and yellow, though the combination and intensity of these pigments results in different shades of brown, grey, and black. My bunny is special, because he has no pigment at all.

He told me that albino rabbits are the hardest to sell. I figured more people would want a distinct looking rabbit, but I guess the red eyes freak them out.


I generally have to go through a slight sunburn before my melanin pigment deepens the color of my skin. I have fair skin, light brown hair, and blue-green eyes, so though I am able to get a slight tan, it doesn’t come easy, and I will never be very tan.

My red-headed friend has it far worse than I do. No matter how much she stays in the sun, she never turns any degree of golden. She only gets redder, and more freckles form.

Several of my friends have more melanin than I do naturally, so they are able to get attractive tans. They lay in tanning booths, which I know is not good for their health. I’m glad I can’t physically tan very much, because it takes away the temptation to do harmful things like this.


I read an article about this in a health magazine. It said that melanin production is not just linked to sun exposure, but also other factors like diet, stress, illness and radiation.

I don't like dark pigments either because I think it makes me look older and my skin looks very uneven. But apparently, it's also a result of a imbalance in the body, either physically or emotionally. I understand when people develop dark pigments because they came into contact with radiation or are suffering from a disorder of some kind. But I would have never thought that stress and bad eating habits could contribute to it.

I think this means that too much melanin is not good, because it wouldn't happen if there wasn't something wrong.


@alisha-- I think it's dangerous to use skin whitening products or products that will prevent the skin from forming melanin. Melanin is not a bad thing, we need melanin to help protect our cells from the sun's damaging rays.

What is bad, is too much sun exposure. For some reason, people think that when they see dark pigments on their skin, they're bad. I don't think it's right to say they are bad, but we can say that it's a warning sign. It means that your pigments have had to change color in order to protect you from the sun, so it's best if you don't push it.

That's how I think about it anyway. Getting rid of melanin in the skin, or trying to prevent the skin from producing more melanin will be more damaging to skin and health. The less melanin in the skin, the less protection from the sun. I also heard that cancer is more prevalent in people with less melanin pigments.


I thought that melanin is a bad thing because people always talk about how staying in the sun a lot or going tanning increases melanin and causes sun spots that could develop into cancer.

I don't like tanning, but since I live on the coast, I end up being in the sun a lot. After the summer, there are always dark melanin pigments on my body and face which scare me. These appear despite the fact that I use sunscreen regularly. In the fall, I use so many skin products to whiten skin and remove the dark melanin pigments.

I didn't realize that melanin is naturally present in our skin, that there are different types and that dark melanin pigments are not permanent. I naturally have olive skin and my skin tolerates the sun way better than my mom who has white skin. So I probably have eumelanin and don't need to worry so much right?

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