Connection Between Melanin And Cancer

Many of us are familiar with or have at least heard of the term ‘melanin’. Most know it to be the substance in our body that results in the colour of our skin. And while this is somewhat accurate, there is more to melanin than just determining where we fall on the skin tone spectrum.

There is, in fact, a particular link between melanin, sun exposure and skin cancer. This link has been studied in the past and still remains a hot topic of research from all over the world. While the exact details of this link between sunlight, melanin and cancer are still being uncovered and debated, let us take a look at the research findings so far.

What is melanin and what does it do?

The term ‘melanin’ is used to refer to a group of pigments found in not just humans, but in most natural organisms. That said, in human beings, it has some very specific roles. One of these roles is, of course, providing colour to not just our skin but also our hair and eyes. However, another role that the pigment melanin plays is that of protecting our skin against the harmful effects of sunlight.

Sunlight is composed of ultraviolet ie. UV rays, which are categorised into UVA and UVB rays. Out of these two, UVB rays are generally of shorter wavelength and only reaches the top layer of the skin (epidermis). UVA rays have a longer wavelength and can reach deeper into the skin (dermis).

These rays aren’t necessarily harmful, but overexposure to sunlight can mean an excess of both UVA and UVB. This can cause serious harm to our body’s genetic material and lead to abnormal cell growth. This is why our body requires a component like melanin. Cells in our skin called melanocytes increase their production of melanin in response to overexposure to sunlight. Melanin absorbs and then redistributes the energy from UV rays, thereby protecting the skin from any damage [1].

What is the link between melanin and cancer?

We discussed UVA and UVB earlier, and that they affect the dermis and epidermis of the skin respectively. If a person spends too much time in the sun, both UVA and UVB can cause genetic mutation of the skin cells, leading to the development of skin cancer.

Since melanin is the body’s natural defense against damage from UV rays, this has led to the theories that higher amounts of melanin must make a person less susceptible to UV damage. Which means that people with naturally darker skin colours are less likely to contract skin cancer than people with lighter skin tones.

Indeed, a recent study in the US appeared to prove this theory by showing a remarkable disparity between people diagnosed with skin cancer. It showed that people with fair-skinned people were 70 times more likely to have skin cancer than people with dark skin [2].

The other side of melanin

However, melanin is not by any means a ‘magical pigment’. And while the correlation between increased melanin and cancer risk lowering seems strong, it is still being researched and debated in the scientific community. Moreover, people with darker skin tones still do get diagnosed with skin cancer, which means that increased melanin in the skin does not guarantee comprehensive protection against sun damage.

Also, when melanin fails to protect the skin against sun damage, the most common type of skin cancer that can develop is melanoma. Melanoma is, in fact, a type of cancer that develops in melanocytes, which are the cells that produce melanin [3].

It is the deadliest type of skin cancer and can develop anywhere in your body that has been exposed to the sun for too long. In fact, since there is melanin in your eyes, you can develop melanoma in your eyes too.

On the one hand, melanin acts as a defence system against UV rays from the sun and the resulting skin cancer. On the other hand, melanin cells can also be damaged by UV rays to such a degree that it becomes the source of cancerous cells and leads to skin cancer itself. This is why scientists find melanin to be such an interesting yet controversial topic to explore. As more research comes into the fore, we will be able to establish stronger links between melanin and cancer and hopefully further reduce risks of skin cancer.

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