The Skin Bleaching epidemic
In late 2014, a Cameroonian former model Irene Major gained some notoriety for her skin bleaching exploits. She did an interview on a UK TV show where she explained why she spends upwards of £2000 a year on changing her skin shade. The interview is classic car-crash viewing with Major coming across as quite shallow and somewhat deluded.
The current face of skin bleaching – Irene Major.
Skin bleaching is a massive problem among Black African women (and men) around the world. For example, it’s estimated that close to 80% of women in Nigeria bleach their skin. In discussing this phenomenon, there are many social, economic, political and even spiritual angles we can take. This article will focus on the one thing that skin bleachers are actively trying to hide – melanin!
We will look at just a few of the many extremely important functions that melanin plays in our bodies. In particular, we will focus on some of the physiological and psychological advantages and benefits that the melanin wealth gives to Black African people – by which I mean Black people wherever they are located in the world (see Peter Tosh’s song African for more on this). I believe that we should embrace and celebrate our melanin wealth rather than trying to suppress it by skin and hair bleaching. Everything written in this article is backed up by scientific literature which is properly referenced, and at the bottom of the page you will find a bibliography including several articles you can view on-line in full.
What is Melanin anyway?
Melanin is a substance (technically, it’s called a ‘polymer’) that is distributed widely through the animal and plant cosmos. It occurs in various parts of the human body where it gives pigmentation. There are actually three main types of melanin to be found in our bodies, eumelanin which provides black, brown, blonde and grey colours, pheomelanin which is responsible for reddish colours, and neuromelanin. [reference].
Black Africans produce more of the ‘good melanin’ in our skin!
All human beings produce more eumelanin than pheomelanin. But Black African people produce 3 times as much eumelanin as Asians, and 6 times as much as White people. In addition, the type of melanin granules we produce are twice as big and more dispersed (and thus better able to express their pigment) than White people’s. The richness and darkness of our skin is because of these factors (Brenner and Hearing, 2008: 541).
Melanin and the Sun
The Sun is the great giver and sustainer of all life, but it can be very dangerous due to ultra violet radiation which can damage our DNA. Eumelanin is essential for protection against UV radiation and the quantity and quality of Black African people’s eumelanin means we have little to fear from the Sun. Our eumelanin blocks out twice as much UV radiation as White people’s and the melanin factories (called melanocytes) in our skin are more resistant to damage and so give us more durable supplies of melanin. This is why less-melanated peoples are much more vulnerable to radiation damage and thus skin cancer [reference].
Melanin and “Black don’t crack”
We’ve all heard the saying that ‘black don’t crack’ which means that Black people tend to age much better than other people. There is some scientific evidence that explains this phenomenon.
It’s the melanin!
One study looked at the effects of ageing caused by both age, and by the sun. It found that ‘as a general trend, age-related effects on the outermost part of the skin are delayed in African Americans while they are more pronounced in Caucasians. Such results suggest physiological or biochemical differences in ethnic skin’ (Querelyx et al, 2009: 312). I think it’s safe to assume that our skin melanin content plays a big role in helping us to age so well.
Melanin and our immune system
Melanin is also a key part of our immune system. Neuromelanin provides a powerful protective system by nullifying and detoxifying metals in the body (Zecca et al 2008: 17571-17572). In one paper we read ‘there is considerable evidence that immunity and melanization are genetically, biochemically and functionally linked‘ (Mackintosh, 2001: 104).
The immunological potency of melanin may explain why our genitals are usually the darkest parts of our bodies. Like the sun, sex is a life and joy giver, but it can also be dangerous due to sexually transmitted infections. One fascinating study suggests that ‘melanin may protect against HIV (Manning et al 2003: 131-133). The authors argue that the melanin richness of dark skinned men’s genitalia helps prevent them from contracting infections through skin lesions, which in turn lowers their chances of contracting HIV. Among the lines of evidence they provide to back this up, they point out that in ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa, countries where people have darker skin have lower rates of HIV infection than the countries where people are lighter skinned.
So perhaps our genitals are melanin-rich to help protect us from these infections and help us to enjoy sex in all it’s goodness? And perhaps the reason that the skin around women’s nipples is so melanated (and apparently becomes even darker during pregnancy) is to help avoid mother and baby inadvertently passing on infections to each other? I wonder if skin bleachers also bleach those parts of the body?
Melanin and our Ears
The inner ear or cochlea contains high concentrations of melanin. Tachibana (1999) found that although melanin has not been shown to be necessary for normal hearing function per se, it does seem to give protection from deterioration in hearing caused by damage. With this in mind, you might expect to find less prevalence of hearing loss among Black people than White people. As Lin and colleagues (2011: 109-110) report, this is precisely the case:
Black people have far lower rates of hearing loss.
‘Epidemiologic studies… have consistently demonstrated lower rates of hearing loss among black than white participants with the odds of hearing loss generally 40–60% lower… These findings have also been corroborated in smaller epidemiological studies that have investigated rates of hearing loss in workers exposed to similar levels of occupational noise… These latter findings among black and white adults of similar occupational and socioeconomic background suggest a possible biological basis for the association of race with hearing loss susceptibility‘.
Melanin and the Central Nervous System
Neuromelanin is the name given to the melanin that is found in various parts of central nervous system which is the brain and spinal chord. Substantial amounts of neuromelanin fill all major areas of the brain, and one of them is called the substantia nigra or ‘black substance’ for that very reason. As we saw earlier, neuromelanin plays an important protective role in the body.
Are there any links between melanin in the brain and melanin in the skin and eyes? Apparentyl so, as can be seen by looking at problems which are related to a deficit in neuromelanin. For example, one study suggested that some types of autism may may be caused by children having too little melanin. It proposed that ‘lack of melanin may leave nerve cells in the ascending reticular activating system less protected, sometimes causing a defect in noradrenergic pathways which could bring about autistic symptoms‘ (Fallone, unpublished: 1-2). The researchers found that autism rates were higher in children with blue eyes and lower in children with more melanated eyes (Stewart, 1996: 104-106).
Black children’s central nervous systems are protected by melanin. and their sensorimotor skills are boosted by it.
Stewart (1996) reviews several studies showing Black people across the globe have much lower rates of central nervous system malformations (such as ancephalcy and spina bifada) and diseases (such as Parkinsons) than white people. Even the Wikipedia page on ‘Melanin Theory’ which it arrogantly claims is ‘pseudoscience’ admits that:
‘[There is] a correlation between cutaneous melanin [i.e. skin colour] and the substantia nigra vis-a-vis Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disease condition in which there is a loss of melanin-pigmented cells of the substantia nigra. Blacks have a significantly lower incidence of Parkinson’s than whites, and it has been suggested that this observation, combined with the depigmentation, suggests that the reduced risk might be related to increased melanin pigmentation.‘ [Source]
Melanin and Sensorimotor development
The central nervous system controls the sensory and neuromuscular organs of the body and is thus essential to human sensitivity, movement and consciousness (Stewart, 1996: 102). Once again, there is a large body of evidence which shows that levels of melanin in the skin and eyes is correlated with sensorimotor ability. Harry Morgan’s excellent paper entitled ‘Black Children in American Classrooms’ (1975) reviews scientific literature from various parts of the global African diaspora showing that Black children are more advanced than white children in sensorimotor development and language acquisition. He puts this down to a combination of genetic and socio-cultural factors’ (Morgan 1975, p.7).
Black people have advanced sensorimotor ability from birth.
Stewart conducts a similar review of scientific data from several countries regarding sensorimotor development in children. She concludes that the evidence strongly suggests that ‘there is a genetic factor related to levels of melanin that contributes to early and advanced forms of sensorimotor development, in addition to or beyond cultural and environmental factors‘ (Stewart 1996:126, 128).
Both Morgan and Stewart use their research to reveal how institutions in White European-dominated USA actively retard the development of African children who are proven to be highly advanced in their early years compared to White children.
Concluding thoughts: Black Pride!
This article has shown several ways in which Black African people’s melanin wealth provides us with several benefits. This hasn’t even scratched the surface and there is much more to be said concerning this wonderful thing called melanin. But I hope that this little snippet will encourage the Black African reader to have a more accurate self-image and sense of self-worth. Perhaps this article can be shared with Black Africans who are bleaching their skin or hair or eyes in order to hide their abundance of melanin. Why try and hide your outward wealth that is a reflection of an even deeper wealth within you?
References (articles in red available online in full):
Brenner, M and Hearing, V.J. (2009) ,What are melanocytes really doing all day long…? : from the ViewPoint of a keratinocyte: Melanocytes – cells with a secret identity and incomparable abilities’, Epxerimental Dermatology, Volume 18, Issue 9, September, pages 799–819. Link to full Article.
Brenner, M and Hearing, V.J. (2008) ‘The Protective Role of Melanin Against UV Damage in Human Skin’, Photochemistry and Photobiology, Volume 84: 539–549.
Fallone, A. (unpublished) ‘Eye Colour and Hemisphericity’ Link to full article.
Fedorow, et al (2005) ‘Neuromelanin in human dopamine neurons: Comparison with peripheral melanins and relevance to Parkinson’s disease’, Progress in Neurobiology, Volume 75, Issue 2, February, Pages 109–124.
Lin, F. et al (2011) ‘Association of Skin Color, Race/Ethnicity, and Hearing Loss Among Adults in the USA’, Journal of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, Volume 13, Issue 1, February, pages 109-117. Link to full article.
Mackintosh, J.A. (2001) ‘The antimicrobial properties of melanocytes, melanosomes and melanin and the evolution of black skin’, Journal of Theoretical Biology, Volume 211, Issue 2, pages 101-13.
Manning, J.T. et al (2003) ‘Melanin and HIV in sub-Saharan Africa’, Journal of Theoretical Biology, Journal of Theoretical Biology, Volume 223, pages 131–133
Morgan, Harry (1975) ‘Black Children in American Classrooms.’ Link to full article.
Querleux, B. et al (2009) ‘Skin from various ethnic origins and aging: an in vivo cross-sectional multimodality imaging study’, Skin Research and technology, Volume 15, Issue 3, August, pages 306–313.
Stewart, N. A. (1996) ‘Melanin: the Melanin Hypothesis and the Development and Assessment of African Children’ in Azibo, D. A (ed) African Psychology in Historial Perspective & Related Commentary, New Jersey: African World Press.
Tachibana, M. (1999) ‘Sound needs sound melanocytes to be heard.’ Pigment Cell Research, Volume 12, Issue 6, December, pages 344-54.