How Your Genes Affect Your Skin Tone

Written by Sheryn Yeo
Posted on August 15, 2020

Our skin consists of many melanocytes which are specialised cells that produce melanin.

What is Melanin?

It is a pigment that gives colour to our skin, hair, and eyes. There are 2 forms of melanin – eumelanin and pheomelanin. The amount of melanin your body produces helps to determine your skin tone. Those with more eumelanin have darker skin tones while people with more pheomelanin tend to have fairer skins.

Why Being Tanned Is Actually Good For You

Most of us are often exposed to the sun on a daily basis. Did you know that the sun emits harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays? Overexposure to UV radiation may cause damage to your skin. Thus, melanin acts like a sunscreen to protect the skin against UV rays.

Differences between skin without protection and skin with sunscreen

Eumelanin provides better UV protection as compared to pheomelanin. Dark-skinned individuals are able to tan easily because more eumelanin is produced when exposed to the sun. Individuals who have lighter skin tones have lower amounts of eumelanin, which puts them at a higher risk of skin damage.

Discover Your Genes

Your genes can tell your risk of developing skin damage due to UV exposure.

How It Works

A gene known as melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) gene signals the body to produce a protein called melanocortin 1 receptor. This receptor is found on the surface of melanocytes. When the receptor is activated, production of melanin begins. 

Individuals carrying the MC1R gene variants are usually hypersensitive to sun exposure. Genetic variation may trigger melanocytes to produce more pheomelanin instead of eumelanin, resulting in fair skin. A lack of eumelanin pigment increases the risk of skin damage caused by UV radiation.

The Negative Effects of UV Exposure

The sun is the natural source that emits UV radiation. UV radiation is able to penetrate through the layers of the skin. Once the skin is exposed to the sun, the melanocytes try to produce melanin to block the UV rays. When the intensity of UV radiation is greater than the protection of melanin your body can provide, sunburn is developed.

Skin Damage

  • Erythema – redness of the skin
  • Edema – swelling due to abnormal fluid accumulation in certain tissues
  • Pigment darkening – sun spots and freckles
  • Photoageing – premature ageing of the skin

Skin Cancers

Sunburned skin is one of the risk factors for skin cancers. A common skin cancer is melanoma. It is developed due to damage or mutations in the DNA of skin cells. Melanoma can be dangerous because of its ability to spread rapidly to other organs if not treated at an early stage.

Skin damage increases risk for skin cancer
Source: Medscape

Steps to Reduce Skin Damage

  1. Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. Apply on skin for at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours or more often if you are sweating or in contact with water.
  2. An alternative to sunscreen is proanthocyanidin cream. Studies have shown that proanthocyanidins are effective in counteracting dangerous effects of the sun.
  3. Topical application of vitamin E is also helpful in reducing skin damage.
  4. Wear sun protective clothing or sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes from direct exposure to sunlight. 
  5. Consume fish oil as it shows positive effects in reducing UV-induced inflammation or skin damage.
  6. Add more fruits and vegetables into your diet as they are a good source of antioxidants and vitamins which can help to protect the skin by absorbing UV radiations. Vitamin C also has anti-inflammatory benefits.

In summary, understanding your genes is essential not only to determine your skin tone, but also to identify your risk of developing skin damage. This enables you to take preventive measures. Regularly checking your skin condition can help lead to an early diagnosis and increase your chances of successful treatment.

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Chan, IL, Cohen, S, Cunha, MG & Maluf, LC 2019, ‘Characteristics and management of Asian skin’, International Journal of Dermatology, vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 131-143.

Deng, L & Xu, S 2018, ‘Adaptation of human skin color in various populations’, Heriditas, vol. 155, no. 1, pp. 1-49. Donglikar, MM & Deore, SL 2016, ‘Sunscreens: A review’, Pharmacognosy Journal, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 171-179. 

Swope, VB & Abdel-Malek, ZA 2018, ‘MC1R: Front and Center in the Bright Side of Dark Eumelanin and DNA Repair’, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol. 19, no. 9, p. 2667.

U.S. Food & Drug Administration 2019, Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun’, viewed 2 March 2020,

U.S. National Library of Medicine 2020, Genetics Home Reference, viewed 4 March 2020,

Yamaguchi, K, Watanabe, C, Kawaguchi, A, Sato, T, Naka, I, Shindo, M, Moromizato, K, Aoki, K, Ishida, H & Kimura, R 2012, ‘Association of melanocortin 1 receptor gene (MC1R) polymorphisms with skin reflectance and freckles in Japanese’, Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 57, pp. 700-708. 

Young, AR, Claveau, J & Rossi, AB 2017, ‘Ultraviolet radiation and the skin: Photobiology and sunscreen photoprotection’, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 76, no. 3, pp. 100-109.

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