The Superpowers of Melanin

Melanin is a natural and beautiful part of our skin. It provides many benefits, like protecting our skin’s collagen, fighting skin aging, and defending us against the damaging effects of UV rays and pollution! So what exactly is the science behind this skin superpower, and how can we work with our melanin production to continue benefiting from its amazing effects?

The Skin Report is a podcast created to educate listeners on methods to improve skin health for people of all ethnicities and ages. On this episode, host Dr. Sethi honors the Juneteenth holiday by educating listeners on the power of melanin! This episode aims to be inclusive to everyone with melanated skin, and she provides social, cultural, and political context into melanin, pigment, and darker skin. She also explains the science behind darker skin and the presence of eumelanin and pheomelanin. This makes melanin one of the skin’s greatest protectors, defending it from oxidative damage from UV rays and pollution. Melanin also helps with anti-aging by protecting the skin’s collagen. Finally, she shares ways people can keep their melanin healthy and happy!

As the founder of RenewMD Beauty Medical Spas and a woman of color, Dr. Sethi shares her perspective, experience, and knowledge on melanin-safe skincare. So expand your skincare knowledge and give your melanin the credit it deserves with this enriching episode!

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This transcript was exported on June 16, 2023 -view latest version here.

Skincare can sometimes feel overwhelming, whether it’s finding the right products, ingredients, or treatments. There’s a lot out there, but not always for people of African, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Eastern South Asian descent. That’s why I set out to educate myself and others so that we can all feel beautiful in our skin.

Hello and welcome back to The Skin Report. I’m Dr. Simran Sethi, an internal medicine doctor, mom of three, and CEO and founder of Skin by Dr. Sethi and ReNewMD Medical Spas.

For today’s episode, we’ll be celebrating our melanin. There is such beauty and power in having melanated skin, so let’s give it the credit it deserves. Before we get into the properties and powers of melanin, I want to first give some social, cultural, and political context. This episode aims to be inclusive to everyone with melanated skin, but I think it’s important to acknowledge Juneteenth, which was this Monday.

Juneteenth is now a US federal holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas. Although enslaved people in other parts of the US were freed years prior, it wasn’t until federal troops entered Texas on June 19th, 1865, that abolition could truly be celebrated. Juneteenth is important not just as a second Independence Day but also for being the longest-running African-American holiday. There is power in embracing the beauty of black skin. In 2021, black Americans spent $6.6 billion on beauty products, more than 11% of the total US beauty market. Despite this, black brands only make up 2.5% of the revenue in the beauty industry. Only 4% to 5% of employees, from entry-level to C-suite, of the beauty industry are black.

Before we dive into melanin itself, I want to take a moment to share my perspective and experience as a South Asian woman. As a woman of Indian descent who grew up partly in the Middle East. The East’s relationship with melanin is complex. Having a lighter complexion is more desirable, and I was reminded of that continuously while growing up. I loved swimming when I was a child, but my grandmother and mother would constantly tell me that swimming or playing any sports outdoors would make me darker and less attractive and that girls should stay indoors more to become lighter. South Asian actresses with lighter complexions were touted for their beauty, while those who are darker were frequently criticized for their darker skin tone.

The news media and advertising in Asian and African markets also have to do a lot with promoting colorism. I won’t lie, I grew up thinking that lighter skin is better skin and soon found myself and my friends doing exactly what our mothers and grandmothers taught us, avoiding the sun at all costs and looking for skincare products and makeup that made us look lighter. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States as a teenager in the early 1990s, then my perception of skin color dramatically changed. While I know that American media and advertising did not represent a lot of ethnic diversity in the 1990s, it didn’t really shame having a darker skin tone either. I did not feel that we were constantly bombarded by the messaging around skin color that a lot of young people in eastern societies are growing up with, and this made a significant impact on how I saw myself.

As a teenager growing up in the United States, my skin color became insignificant, and that was a good thing. In fact, I feel that we have come a long way in western societies in appreciating darker skin tones for their beauty, and I’m glad that today there is a greater emphasis on increasing diversity in the media. I think that diversity in media has more room for growth in eastern societies, but it’s also starting. I recently stumbled on an article which quoted a number of reputable Bollywood actresses who shared that they were asked to undergo skin-lightening treatments to get better movie roles.Some of the actresses stated that because they had a darker complexion, they were always cast in roles portraying women in villages or a lower social class. It’s encouraging to see Indian celebrities being more vocal about their experiences with colorism, but there is still a very long way to go to change the strongly embedded imperialistic concepts of color that eastern African societies have had for generations. I’ve linked the article I was referring to in the show notes.

Now let’s get into melanin itself. We’ve discussed melanin on the show before, but usually in the context of how it can react to our environment. Right now, I want to focus on the pigment itself. The skin has two layers, the epidermis and the dermis, which, together, provide our skin the ability to protect us from the surrounding environment. The more superficial layer, the epidermis, houses pigment-producing cells called melanocytes, the pigment known as melanin, and cells to help fight bacteria and other insults to our skin. Below the epidermis is the dermis, which is where our integral skin proteins like collagen and elastin are produced. Skin proteins are what give skin its structure.

Now back to melanin. Melanin pigment is not only found in the skin, but it is also present in other tissues like hair and eyes. We actually have two types of melanin pigments, eumelanin and pheomelanin, and our skin color is created by a mixture of the two. Eumelanin is a brown and black pigment, and pheomelanin is a yellow and red pigment. In other words, every person has both pigments, and it is the ratio of eumelanin to pheomelanin that determines skin tone.A person of Northern European descent with a skin type one or two is going to have lighter hair, eyes and will easily experience a sunburn if exposed to the sun. These skin types have a greater ratio of pheomelanin to eumelanin, and I will discuss what is happening to their skin during UV exposure later in the episode.Someone of South Asian descent likely has a skin type 4 through 6 and has a greater amount of eumelanin than pheomelanin and will not burn easily after sun exposure. So remember, having a darker skin tone does not only mean you have more or less melanin, but rather a greater presence of eumelanin to pheomelanin. This is also why if you have limited sun exposure, you will still look like your ethnicity or race, because even though you reduce the amount of melanin production overall, the type of melanin you are genetically programmed to produce is not going to change.Now, let’s go into why melanin is one of our skin’s greatest protectors. First, it’s important to understand that a melanin’s job is to protect her skin from UV and pollution damage, which collectively is called oxidative damage. Oxidative damage from UV radiation or the sun is the main cause of skin cancer and skin aging because it breaks down collagen. Now, oxidative damage from pollution also breaks down collagen and results in wrinkles and skin laxity. When our skin experiences oxidative damage, it up regulates the production of its protecting factors, mainly melanin. That is why our skin darkens when exposed to excess sunlight, because it is its natural way of conferring protection against the harmful effects of UV radiation. Melanin production also increases with other skin insults like micro tears and inflammation, but we’ll discuss this more later.

With all this in mind, I want to chat about how melanin, especially eumelanin, is a superpower for our skin. Evolution has largely dictated our skin color based on where we originated from thousands of years ago. People originating from areas closer to the equator and the Southern Hemisphere, where sun exposure is the greatest, have a greater proportion of eumelanin, the brown and black pigment, as this type of melanin is significantly more protective against the harmful effects of UV radiation. Compared to pheomelanin, eumelanin is much more effective in filtering out UV rays and pollution damage. As a result, eumelanin also helps to prevent wrinkles and, most importantly, protects the skin from skin cancer. What does this really mean?

Dark skin, which contains more eumelanin than fair skin, is better protected against UV-induced damage, and eumelanin is thought to be superior to pheomelanin in its photo protective properties, and the data backs this up very well. According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, subjects with white skin are approximately 70 times more likely to develop skin cancer than subjects with black skin. Eumelanin especially serves as a physical barrier that scatters UV radiation and as an absorbent filter that reduces the penetration of UV through the epidermis. How does melanin measure up exactly?

When thinking about the powers of melanin, especially eumelanin, we can assume that it has about 1.5 to 2 SPF, possibly as high as 4 SPF. This implies that melanin absorbs about 50% to 70% of UV radiation. Compared to the SPF products on the market, an SPF of 2 doesn’t sound impressive until you actually dig into what this means. An SPF of 2 means a doubling of protection of the skin against sunburn. As discussed in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, melanin and black skin is twice as effective compared to white skin in inhibiting UVB radiation from penetrating. While black epidermis allows only 7.4% of UVB and 17.5% of the UVA to penetrate 24% UVB and 55% UVA passes through white skin.

In addition to incredible sun protection, melanin also acts as an anti-aging superpower. Have you wondered why people of African or Asian descent tend to have fewer wrinkles and laxity in their skin? The answer is not genetics, but more specifically, it is genetically their skin color or their melanin makeup. Because eumelanin is so effective at filtering out UVA, UVB, and HEV rays, it reduces the amount of radiation reaching the dermis, where skin proteins are made. Collagen gives our skin its strength, and elastin gives it elasticity. Our ability to produce these proteins reduces over time, so even though people of all ethnic backgrounds age at the same rate, those with more eumelanin or darker skin tones experience less damage in their dermis, and their skin looks younger. The differences in age-related changes in the skin become more and more apparent as people age.

In fact, eumelanin is so effective at filtering out UV rays that ethnicities with darker skin tones tend to have significantly lower vitamin D levels. UV radiation is needed to produce vitamin D in our skin, which means that if our eumelanin is doing an amazing job at filtering out UV rays from causing skin cancer and aging, it is definitely also reducing the amount of vitamin D produced. Luckily, we can take vitamin D supplements to compensate for this, but I bring this up because vitamin D deficiency is very, very common in people of African, East and South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic descent. If you are from that background, consider getting your vitamin D levels checked, as it is essential for bone health and it is important for all age groups. We’ve talked extensively about the superpower of melanin, but let’s really embrace melanin by understanding how to keep it healthy and happy.

Melanin is important to our skin and our overall health, but why are there so many melanin-or pigment-fighting products in the skincare market? When you experience a skin insult in the form of breakage or inflammation, your skin will produce more melanin as a result. Breakage includes acne, dry skin, or after using chemical peels, while inflammation is usually eczema and allergic reactions. Excess melanin production in response to these conditions creates an irregular skin tone and patches of hyperpigmentation, which people look to correct. The skincare industry thus far has had a singular focus on fighting melanin, and I think this has programmed us to have a more negative view of melanin, but when you solely and aggressively fight melanin, it uses its superpowers to fight back. Let’s explain this further in the context of a common skin concern, acne.

People with darker skin tones find their pimples leave behind dark spots even though the pimple resolved months ago. This happens because the skin sees acne as breakage and produces more melanin to fight this breakage. In more melanin-rich skin tones, that means producing more melanin. If the skin breakage continues, which happens if you’re using harsh chemical exfoliants or a large particle scrub or brush, or if your skin stays very dry, the skin will never get a chance to repair its skin barrier, and your skin will continue to make more melanin to try and give more protection.

A lot of people with acne fall into a cycle of dry and oily skin and are usually marketed skincare products that make their skin very, very dry. In darker skin tones, this will only promote hyperpigmentation, and in dermatology, we refer to this as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Instead, balancing the skin’s moisture and repairing the skin barrier will clear that hyperpigmentation, as the skin’s barrier is now strong and the melanocytes do not have to go into overdrive to confer protection. This requires a strategy of using an effective but moisture-sparing cleanser, antioxidant serums, and, most importantly, a product that acts as a moisture barrier.

Using my skincare products, I’m going to further contextualize this so that you can better understand how mimicking the skin renewal cycle and repairing our skin barrier balances melanin production. My line’s acne system starts with a salicylic cleanser that also has extra virgin coconut oil so that it can effectively clean your pores without stripping your skin of its natural oils. This is then followed by a glycolic gel, which, for acne-prone skin, helps dissolve away dead skin cells that are clogging pores. The third step is a strong antioxidant green tea serum that will help build our skin barrier while fighting oxidative stress and regulating oil production. The final step, which is a final step in all my skincare regimens, is a hyaluronic acid and snow mushroom extract serum.

This serum’s job is to protect the moisture barrier so that the skin stays dewy and plump and any micro tears caused by acne continue to repair. Moisture protection is essential to keep our skin barriers strong and allowing our melanin to do its normal protective work instead of going into overdrive. If you are curious, I’ve linked all these products in the show notes. Did you notice that none of these products includes a skin-lightening or bleaching agent that attacks melanin? Yet when people use the acne system, their blemishes and post-inflammatory pigmentation clears away, and their skin feels soft and dewy, not dry and crepey.

I can go on and on with examples of how trying to suppress your melanin will result in unhealthy skin and unhealthy and uneven melanin production. My entire skincare line and medical practice is centered around optimizing the amazing benefits of melanin by promoting our natural skin renewal cycle and building a strong skin barrier so then melanin can focus on protecting our collagen and fighting skin aging and stress instead of skin barrier breakage.

Thank you so much for listening to this episode on the superpowers of our melanin. Our melanin is a natural and beautiful part of our skin, and it’s time we work with our pigment so it can better protect us. I hope you enjoyed our Juneteenth episode. If you’d like more of this content, let us know. We are a woman of color on brand, and any likes, reviews, ratings, and shares truly help to boost the podcast and get it in front of others like yourself. Thanks for listening, and until next time, love the skin you’re in and celebrate your beauty.

If you’d like to learn more about science-backed skincare or medical aesthetic treatments, please subscribe to and turn on notifications for The Skin Report so you always know when a new episode is up. We have a newsletter that you can sign up for on so that you can stay up-to-date on all our latest products and more. Additionally, if you have a skincare question or want to make an episode topic recommendation, please message me at, which is linked in my show notes, and I’ll be sure to answer your question in an episode soon. We’ve received some great questions so far, and I will try and answer them at the end of every episode, so keep them coming.

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