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The Power of Melanin and What Most People Don’t Know.
Model Khoudia Diop, “The Melanin Goddess,” knows the power of melanin. With a successful career chock-full of jaw-dropping photos to be proud of – she’s also one of many people of color who can relish in the remarkable health benefits of melanin, the biomolecule that gives skin, hair and eyes their color. Yes, we all know dark skin is best known for its hallmark baby-smoothness and dewy radiance that seemingly last forever (looking at you, Jenifer Lewis!!!), but what else can melanin do for you? Here’s what we found out.
More Than Appearances: Melanin Also Protects You
People with darker skin have an innate “foundation” to work with on top of their skincare routines. Darker skin carries a lower risk of various forms of skin damage (e.g. burns, wrinkles and age spots) from sun exposure, and melanin definitely plays a role. According to board-certified dermatologist Fran Cook-Bolden, MD, brown skin’s higher concentrations of melanin help to protect against free-radical damage from sunlight, smoking and pollution. “If you look at free radicals as part of an active equation or chemical, melanin helps to block the activation of those chemicals, actually neutralizing the free radicals,” Cook-Bolden tells Makeup Madeover.
Melanin Makes Skin More Dewy
Melanin’s free-radical fighting also helps skin retain moisture. “I like to describe the skin barrier as like a brick and mortar,” Cook-Bolden explains. “The bricks are the cells and the mortar is the fat—the lipids—the glue that holds the cells together. The melanin in this scenario can actually prevent the free radicals’ negative effect of drying out the skin and compromising that brick-and-mortar effect, and keep the skin more moisturized for a better protective barrier.”
Melanin Plays a Role in Fighting Skin Cancer
One of melanin’s most promising advantages is its skin cancer–fighting properties, thanks to its role as a free-radical scavenger and its ability to repair broken DNA. Cook-Bolden also explains in simple terms how melanin-mediated cancer immunotherapy, a treatment for melanoma, works: “Melanin is able to transform negative particles of sunlight into heat energy, which becomes a cancer-fighting tool, just like a fever helps to fight the negative effects of a viral illness.”
Melanin May Help the Body Function Better and Faster
Beyond the cosmetic, scientists are discovering that melanin may be a big deal in the body overall. Karl Maret, MD—a medical doctor, biomedical engineer and energy-medicine specialist—cites an article written by Frank Barr, MD in 1983, published in the journal Medical Hypothesis, as a groundbreaking hypothesis proposing melanin’s uncharted potential.
Barr theorized that in the body, melanin may have a similar job to what chips in electronic devices do. These direct electricity to trigger specific functions, like running apps or loading images. In the case of the human body, melanin may facilitate things like movements or reactions, which require the same kind of “switching” of energy. “[Barr] even makes some suggestions that [melanin] conducts electricity more efficiently than normal,” Maret says, adding that the way this works is still a scientific hypothesis.
Melanin Has Potential to Protect Against Radiation
Cutting-edge science also reveals melanin’s unique energetic qualities. “Melanin absorbs all kinds of electromagnetic frequencies,” Dr. Maret says. “Funguses with high melanin content were found at Chernobyl, for example, and they survived. This is a way in which energy is being used by primitive lifeforms to stay alive and to produce electron flow in the body.” Translation: scientific studies suggest that melanin can absorb radiation and neutralize its negative effects—which could be game-changing in future catastrophes similar to Chernobyl and Fukushima and even just in balancing the inevitable radioactive effects of carrying gadgets like they’re extra limbs.
Here Are Melanin’s Caveats
Now that you’re fully aware of melanin’s impressive qualities, it’s time to explore its downsides so you can make an informed decision on how to best take care of your deeper-hued complexion.
First up is discoloration. “Pigmentary problems are one of the most common things that people of color come to the dermatologist for,” Cook-Bolden says. Melanin is what makes darker skin more prone to hyperpigmentation and blotchiness from inflammatory responses to environmental stress like unchecked sun time or smoggy days on city streets.
The solution? You’re probably already doing it. “Everybody’s looking for a magic cure, but the first thing that we talk about is sunscreen,” advises Cook-Bolden. Make sure you use a broad-spectrum product (meaning it protects from both UVA and UVB rays) that contains at least SPF 30.
Higher concentrations of melanin also predispose people of color to vitamin-D deficiency—because melanin can be that good at sun protection. “When you use sunscreen on top of that, then theoretically the levels would be even lower because we know that the sun does have an effect on stimulating vitamin D,” Cook Bolden says. “But we’re still really concerned about the deleterious effects of the sun.”
She and many other scientists and doctors still highly recommend wearing sunscreen like it’s your hobby, especially since skin-cancer rates in people of color continue to increase. (Cook-Bolden attributes this to the thinning of the ozone layer as well as racial intermixing, which leads to offspring with lower intensities of melanin.) Talk to your physician to see if vitamin-D3 supplements are in order.
Last but not least, Dr. Maret says that skin cancer may be more difficult to diagnose and caught later in darker-skinned individuals than in light-skinned individuals. Be a vocal advocate for yourself as a person of color if you find abnormalities in your skin, like new or changing moles or unusual discoloration.
Fortunately, more melanin doesn’t necessarily mean more work. These precautions, after all, are pretty much the same no matter your skin tone. Again: wear sunscreen, check your vitamin D levels and visit your derm once a year.
Now you know, dark isn’t just beautiful — it’s healthy, too. Whether you’re enjoying one of FENTY’s inclusive shades or going completely bare-faced, slather yourself in sunscreen, go outside and bask in all your melanin-filled glory!