What is Melanin? Skin’s Tiny Umbrellas

What is Melanin? Skin's Tiny Umbrellas

“What is melanin?” is a question I am often asked.

Well, if you’re a sun worshipper and love basking in summer’s glorious rays, that healthy tan you’re sporting is anything but healthy.

That’s right; it is, in fact, an immune defence function, shielding you from the sun.

Thankfully, your skin naturally provides you with some awesome protection.

This comes in the form of thousands of MINI UMBRELLAS, filled with a pigment called melanin.

These stand guard at the doors of your skin cells, to protect your body from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays.

As an aesthetician, the human anatomy never ceases to amaze me.

To think that we actually have our very own inbuilt PARASOLS, that deflect damaging UVA rays, giving us protection against the sun and injury.


Unless you really do live in a cave, on any given day you will receive a certain amount of photo damage – whether that be from the environment, stress, or diet. Generally, all of this will be handled well by a healthy, protected skin.

However, because we are exposed to so much environmental pollution daily, our skin becomes a little bit less protected.

Add to this mix sunburn and injury, and you have scar tissue and a reduction in capillary flow, which blocks nutrients getting to your once healthy skin.

An over-production of melanin is referred to as hyperpigmentation, which can cause unsightly brown patches on the skin.


So, as you can see, the sun is a really big culprit when it comes to triggering melanin.

Even if you are using an effective sunscreen, heat from the sun causes inflammation, which triggers a response to increase melanin activity. To those with sensitive skin, beware.

But in reality, there are other reasons for excessive melanin activity:

  • There are inflammatory factors, such as using strong chemical peels and laser procedures
  • If you suffer from pimples, papules, or pustules, excessive picking will create trauma, bringing melanin to the site of the injury
  • Hormonal factors should not be overlooked either, these include prescription medication, pregnancy, menopause, and birth control pills

Understanding Melanin

To the naked eye, there is a large range of skin colours.

This variation is due to pigment in the skin’s cells referred to as melanin, which is responsible for our skin colour.

Melanin is produced in special cells called melanocytes, which are located in the lower layer of our epidermis, the surface layer of our skin.

Melanocytes are not the umbrellas of our skin; they just produce melanin, forming granules in the epidermal cells.

You can liken melanocytes to tiny pigment factories, which manufacture and ship pigments known as melasomes to other cells where pigment is required.

The word ‘melanin’ actually comes from Greek word MELAS which means BLACK, so like all good sun shades, our tiny umbrellas are coloured black.

It may come as a surprise for you to learn that there are no truly ‘white’ people – it is just some people have less melanin in their skin than others.

UV radiation is at its most damaging when these epidermal cells are their busiest: dividing up to produce new cells. This is the critical time that UV can damage our DNA in the nucleus, which results in problems like skin cancer and mutations.

Melanin production protects us from both UV radiation and Vitamin D deficiency.

Interestingly, over time, our complexions became dark enough to protect our DNA from any UV damage, but still light enough to allow UVB in to help us synthesise Vitamin D. This is why melanin is key to skin health.

So now you know, and if you’re ever asked, “what is melanin?”, you can say they’re our skin’s tiny umbrellas, that help shade us from the sun.

Follow the link for a technical overview called the dark side of melanin.

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