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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Melanin Magic

Jun 01, 2024 06:00AM ● By Susan Gonzalez
This is our fifth installment of a package of articles addressing in depth an issue of concern to the African American community. Previously, we published all articles in a single issue. This year, due a family emergency, we’re spreading the package across two months, June and July. Our plan is to offer the second and third articles and a resource listing next month. —Editor
While our human skin comes in an endless variety of types, tones and textures, it is a complex organ that is always made up of the same basic structure. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to darker skin tones, and they often possess a few characteristics that call for specific treatments.

Skin Basics and the Workings of Melanin

Let’s start at the beginning. All dermal layers of humans are basically the same; however, the epidermis—the outermost layer of the skin—varies greatly from one ethnicity to the next when it comes to color and other characteristics. The epidermis has five layers, each with its own structure and function. The epidermis also contains melanin, a color protein or skin pigment that determines the darkness of the skin tone. Underneath the epidermis is the dermal layer, which contains the nerves, arteries, veins, oil glands, sweat glands and hair roots. 

Skin pigment starts with melanocytes, cells that live in the basal, or deepest, layer of the epidermis. Regardless of ethnicity, everyone has the same number of melanocytes, and all melanocytes have the potential to become melanated skin cells and create the color of skin, eyes, hair, and more. Which melanocytes—and how many—become melanated depends on several factors, including race, skin damage, and degree of sun exposure.

There are two types of melanin: pheomelanin, which produces yellow and red tones, and eumelanin, which produces brown and black tones. Genetics, environmental factors and geographic location determine which of these types of melanin is dominant. Regardless of the type, more melanin is created when stimulated as directed by genetics, skin damage, or sun exposure.

How do different skin tones come about? Melanocyte cells make melanosomes, granules that carry and produce melanin. Those with darker skin tones have up to 10 times the number of melanosomes that fair skin tones possess. Also, the melanosomes in darker skin are larger and cover more area than those in non-pigmented skin and create a dense network, deepening the tone of the skin.

The Advantages of Melanated Skin

Melanin can go a long way to protect against sun damage and aging of the skin. Heavily melanated Brown and Black skin have different characteristics than skin of lighter coloring. The more melanin and color there is in a skin cell, the better it protects against sun-induced UV rays, DNA damage and skin cell death. This translates to a lower incidence of sunburns and damage and a lower chance of developing skin cancer. In fact, those with white skin are approximately 70 times more likely to develop skin cancer than those with darker skin. The darker the skin, the more the skin can absorb and reflect UV rays. UVA rays, for example, travel deep into the skin and can cause deep damage, and UVB rays are the rays that can burn the surface of the skin. Black skin allows only 17 percent of UVA rays and 7 percent of UVB rays to enter the epidermis, while white skin allows 55 and 24 percent, respectively.

However, Black or Brown skin cannot completely protect one from the damaging radiation of the sun, so wearing sunscreen is still important. While darker skin is less susceptible to burns, a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more is still recommended to prevent deep damage that might eventually turn into skin cancer.

Skin of color also has comparatively larger fibroblasts—the cells in the skin that create collagen—than other skin tones. Collagen acts like padding underneath the epidermis. The more collagen in the skin, the younger-looking and the more plump the skin is. Elastin is the part of the skin that maintains the skin’s underlying shape and appearance. If skin was a couch, the cushions would be the collagen and the coils and support springs would be the elastin. Sagging skin is a sign of failing elastin. The elastin in melanated skin lasts much longer and does not break down nearly as fast, keeping skin firm and youthful as it ages.

The density of the skin plays a role in keeping skin tight and free from wrinkles. The uppermost layer of the epidermis of Brown and Black skin consists of 20 compact layers, while lighter skin tones only have 16 layers, so they are more prone to showing signs of aging.

The Disadvantages

Having more melanin-producing cells, darker skin has its disadvantages. When the skin is damaged by sunburn, inflammation, acne, the use of harsh skincare products or treatments and other events that compromise its integrity, those cells can become hyperactive. Such damage can produce hyperpigmentation, darker areas on the skin that are harder to resolve. But while it can be difficult to treat, it is not impossible. There are numerous skincare products and treatments specifically designed for Black and Brown skin to help even out the skin tone safely.
The density of those 20 layers of skin helps to prevent wrinkles; however, the downside is that denser skin also makes it harder for skincare products to penetrate through and nourish deeper skin cells. Using a jade roller or simply pressing products in with fingertips after applying them can help with absorption.

Dark melanated skin typically exhibits overactive sebum glands. Sebum is the oil on the skin’s surface that keeps it moisturized, but its over-production can lead to oily skin, clogged pores and acne. Proper specialized skincare routines can go a long way to improve these issues.

Larger fibroblasts lead to younger-looking skin, but they can become overactive from skin damage, such as injury or surgical scars. Over-production of healing tissue can lead to the production of keloids, an overgrowth of scar tissue in the area of injury. Keloids can be undesirable for cosmetic reasons and can also cause itching and discomfort, sometimes even pain. Treatments such as steroid injections into the tissue can sometimes minimize the problem.

Due to the direction of growth and the type of hair commonly found on melanated skin, ingrown hairs are more common. This can result in painful bumps and, in some cases, infection of the hair follicles, which can lead to hyperpigmentation. Regular use of an exfoliant, such as a salicylic acid scrub, can keep the skin surface clear and may help prevent ingrown hairs. There are many skincare products created specifically for that issue.

Further Considerations

While, historically, it has been believed that Black and Brown populations have lower-than-average vitamin D levels due to their skin color, recent studies have been inconclusive. Research continues to explore how different skin pigmentation might determine rates of product absorption, the rate of water evaporation from skin cells, and the effects of darker skin on vitamin D production.

It is well documented that people of color are underrepresented in dermatology research and that medical schools often lack sufficient education about Black skin issues. For best results, seek out skin care professionals who are familiar with the characteristics and concerns specific to Black and Brown skin. They should know that skin diseases present differently in skin of color, be knowledgeable about safe treatments and know how to address melanated skin issues effectively without causing any further problems. ❧
Susan Gonzalez is a holistic licensed esthetician, author, nurse and owner of MOON Organics, a skincare company providing clean, healthy skincare and personal care products. Connect with her on FaceBook and Instagram or visit MoonOrganics.com.
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