Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Overview of Skin Pigment


Shinjita Das

, MD, Harvard Medical School

Last full review/revision Jan 2021| Content last modified Jan 2021
Click here for the Professional Version
Topic Resources

Melanin is the pigment that produces the various shades and colors of human skin, hair, and eyes. 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 deepest layer of the outer layer of the skin called the basal layer. 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 complete loss of pigment. The skin is white. Widespread depigmentation occurs in vitiligo.

Hypopigmentation is an abnormally low amount of melanin. The skin is lighter in color than normal. Widespread hypopigmentation of the skin occurs in albinism.

Hypopigmentation 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 that have healed (such as atopic dermatitis or psoriasis)

  • Rare hereditary conditions

Hyperpigmentation is usually caused by an abnormally high amount of melanin, but sometimes it is caused by deposition of 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

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
Others also read

Test your knowledge

Ichthyosis is a form of severe dry skin that causes it to scale (build up excessive dry skin cells) and flake. Ichthyosis ranges in severity from mild to disfiguring, and may be either inherited or acquired. During which of the following time periods does inherited ichthyosis usually first manifest?
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID

Also of Interest

Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID