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Skin Pigmentation – Its Nature, its Purpose and its Management

Thursday, 27 Nov 2014 - 11:54 am

Skin pigmentation is a universal characteristic shared by all humans and the vast majority of animals. The mechanism by which this property is achieved; the manner in which it presents and the purposes that it serves tends to vary considerably among other genera and species but, in Homo sapiens, it varies only in its degree and, sadly, in the way some view this expression of our diversity.

Melanin and its Role in Determining Complexion

Located in the basal layer of the epidermis are specialised cells known as melanocytes. They are so-called because of their role in the process responsible for the production of the dark-brown pigment melanin. The process is termed melanogenesis and is responsible for skin pigmentation.

Like the majority of the biochemical processes that occur in the body, it is a homeostatic or balanced mechanism. That is to say that the formation or metabolism of melanin will, in health, be balanced by its breakdown or catabolism through counter-processes that serve to keep its overall concentration constant.

Variations in that normal level have given rise to the six skin types that are characteristic of our various racial groups and have evolved to better adapt each group to the prevailing conditions of the environment in which it originally developed. Interestingly, there is evidence that, as a result of widespread migration, the lines once clearly defined by skin pigmentation are becoming blurred due to the continuing role of evolution in adapting life to a changing environment.

Environmental and genetic factors, as well as lifestyle choices, can often cause anomalies in the distribution of melanin, giving rise to dark or light patches that can be unsightly and that have resulted in an industry devoted to the correction of these anomalies.

The Importance of Melanin to Health 

The presence of melanin is known to be responsible for at least two important functions. Firstly, sunlight includes UV-B rays that, at sufficiently high levels over a prolonged period, has been proven to cause damage to DNA. In turn, such damage is known to be responsible for more than 90% of basal and squamous cell carcinomas and malignant melanomas worldwide.

Additional to normal skin pigmentation, the tanning response represents an attempt to reinforce the barrier provided by melanin that is able to absorb UV-B rays and prevent such damage. This underlines the value of naturally higher levels of melanin in hot, tropical environments.

Its second function relates to nutrition. Among the vitamins of the D group, D3 is the most important. Essential for healthy bone formation, it may be synthesised in the skin on exposure to sunlight to supplement dietary intake. Excessively high levels, however, may result in the condition known as Hypervitaminosis D that, among its other ill-effects, can cause harmful deposits of calcium in soft tissue. Once again, melanin provides a degree of protection consistent with the level of skin pigmentation. This reinforces both the importance of high levels in sunny regions and of lower levels in those areas where sunshine is less abundant.

Managing Abnormal Melanin Distribution 

It would surprise most to learn that the number and distribution of melanocytes in humans is constant, and that it is the genetically-determined level at which melanin concentration is maintained that differentiates the six skin types referred to earlier. Abnormal melanocyte distribution or selective overproduction of melanin may give rise to the irregular dark patches termed melasma and is also responsible for freckles that occur in fair-skinned individuals.

Conversely, a deficit of melanocytes or melanin levels causes the light patchiness termed vitiligo, while the total absence of skin pigmentation in the genetic condition known as oculocutaneous albinism, results in a pure white complexion, equally white hair and the lack of any characteristic eye-colour. While for the latter there is no remedy, and victims are condemned to avoid sunlight for life, the lesser anomalies may be managed either by concealment with cosmetics or through the carefully controlled regulation of melanogenesis now possible by topical application of certain, more advanced dermatoceutical preparations.

Although all such preparations are commonly thought of and even described as bleaching agents, their action is more complex. Some grey market and homemade products do employ caustic chemicals to provide cheap treatments for abnormal skin pigmentation, but the true and much higher cost of such products lies in the damage that they frequently cause.

The mild and natural ingredients in our Scinderm products inhibit melanogenesis in a controlled and safe manner, gradually restoring even skin pigmentation and natural skin tones.

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