The much maligned melanocyte and her offspring, melanin are not as bad as we have been led to believe. Think about it…isn’t it amazing how little melanocytes, spread throughout the lower epidermis, tasked with protecting our precious corneocytes are able to so evenly disperse pigment for a generally uniform coverage that give us our skin tone? Melanin serves as our built in UV protectant. And as if that wasn’t enough they also play a part in our immune system by serving as an antioxidant and mopping up free radicals. They are also believed to protect our liver and intestines. And they are tenacious! Melanocytes are long lived cells with a finite supply of melanin. But they will continue to try and do their job even after they are damaged and no longer operating optimally.
So where do things go wrong? Let’s start with the obvious. Prolonged, unprotected UV exposure (this sounds like user error to me. 😉 ). Prolonged unprotected sun exposure is known to exacerbate acne and lead to undesirable skin conditions such as hyperkeratosis, hyperpigmentation, loss of elasticity, loss of structural integrity, skin cancers and create vascular conditions. And, interesting fact, melanin is not triggered through UV rays hitting our skin. Melanin is actually triggered through pituitary stimulation which is triggered through our retina! (sunglasses do little to cut off this process as UV rays can slip in through the sides.)
This is a good place to discuss vitamin D as well. Vitamin D is critical to our health and well being. And healthy sun exposure in the early morning hours or late afternoon is a great way to get naturally occurring Vitamin D and its happy benefits. Vitamin D is also critical for proper cellular formation.
Other common factors leading to less desirable outcomes are aggressive treatments, incorrect product usage, photosensitizing ingredients, repeated irritation (face mask, hats, helmets etc.) and tanning beds.
Now let’s talk about some of melanin’s not so finest moments. Age spots, liver spots, lipofuscin, melasma and post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (although I hesitate to add this as it is a sign of melanin doing it’s job to protect us.)
Age Spots: A result of repeated oxidative events such as unprotected sun exposure, repeated chemical peels, over exfoliation and repeated laser treatments.
Liver Spots: Liver spots are interesting. The liver and skin are sister organs. And when the liver is overloaded or compromised it spills over into the skin to help eliminate toxins. Remember, the skin is an elimination organ. Some causes of liver spots can be meats and dairy (bovine growth hormone). If you are approaching it from an Eastern Medicine point of view, anger is the emotion that manifest as liver spots.
Lipofuscin: I always find this one difficult to explain. But you can identify it by it’s yellow tinge. Lipofuscin is the results of heavy metals, medicines and/or over the counter meds. It is similar to liver spots in that it is a sign of over load and elimination/storage is happening in the skin.
Melasma: Melasma is hormonally triggered and there is some connection to the liver. Birth control and other Rx as well as pregnancy can result in Melasma. I will caution too that if one is using any reproductive hormones to be especially diligent with sun care. You may be able to pinpoint which hormone you are dealing with by the pattern that appears. Estrogen based melasma will appear on the cheek up to the temple and down to the jaw. Progesterone is predominantly on the forehead. And testosterone appears on the upper lip. Melasma must be treated with great care and aggressive treatments will only compound the problem. Diet, supplements, melanin inhibitors and time are the key to getting it under control.
Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation: PIH is a response to aggressive treatments or injury. PIH can appear as redness or inflammation first but will eventually darken as melanin rushes in to create a protective umbrella.
Treating the above conditions requires diligence and an understanding of this mighty little cell. It is tempting to peel it away or (gasp!) avoid the sun forever but long term solutions that address the melanocytes function and level of cellular damage are key. Cellular damage is not explained often when embarking on a corrective course. Cells age from the inside out. When only the cell membrane is compromised success can be easier to achieve. However the further in the damage goes the longer and more difficult it gets. Once damage has reached the interior where the mitochondria resides DNA damage is assured. “DNA damage by UVR exposure or aggravating treatments is a major factor for excessive pigmentation DNA has been damaged the melanocyte will always have the potential to produce more melanosomes”
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some ingredients out there that can be harmful to the melanocyte or photosensitize the skin.
Hydroquinone: poisoner of the melanocyte and can cause rebound pigmentation
I hope this was helpful. I also hope it gave you a new appreciation for melanin and what its job is.