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Overview of Skin Pigment

By Peter C. Schalock, MD, Harvard Medical School;Massachusetts General Hospital

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Melanin is the brown pigment that produces the various shades and colors of human skin. Coloration (pigmentation) is determined by the amount of melanin in the skin. Without melanin, the skin would be pale white with shades of pink caused by blood flow through the skin. Fair-skinned people produce very little melanin, darker-skinned people produce moderate amounts, and very dark-skinned people produce the most. People with albinism have little or no melanin and thus their skin appears white or pale pink. Usually, melanin is fairly evenly distributed in the skin, but sometimes people have spots or patches of skin with more melanin. Examples of such spots include freckles, age spots (lentigines), and melasma.

Melanin is produced by specialized cells (melanocytes) that are scattered among the other cells in the top layer of the skin called the epidermis. After melanin is produced, it spreads into other nearby skin cells.

Pigment disorders

Pigment disorders can be widespread and affect many areas of skin, or they can be localized and affect only certain areas of the skin. The pigmentation changes they cause are called

  • Depigmentation

  • Hypopigmentation

  • Hyperpigmentation

Depigmentation is loss of pigment. The skin is white.

Hypopigmentation is an abnormally low amount of melanin. The skin is lighter in color than normal.

Widespread hypopigmentation or depigmentation is most often caused by

Hypopigmentation also can be caused by

  • Previous injury to the skin, such as a blister, ulcer, burn, exposure to a chemical, or skin infection

  • Inflammatory conditions of the skin (such as atopic dermatitis or psoriasis)

  • Rare hereditary conditions

Hyperpigmentationis usually caused by an abnormally high amount of melanin, but sometimes it is caused by other pigmented substances that are not normally present in the skin. The skin is darker in color and sometimes is a different color than normal. Hyperpigmentation can be caused by

  • Disorders that cause inflammation

  • Drugs

  • Exposure to sunlight

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