Take a redhead to the beach and they’ll leave with skin the color of their hair. Experts have always assumed this tendency towards sunburn means fair-skinned folks can’t make much melanin, the pigment that gives us some sun protection. But British researchers say that just isn’t so.
University of Bradford scientists compared the isolated cells from what they deemed “Celtic-type” (very fair) and “Italian-type” (olive) skin. When stimulated in a lab, the fair skin defied expectations by creating just as much, and sometimes more, melanin than the olive-tone skin.
So shouldn’t that mean redheads are capable of getting a tan? Not necessarily. Despite making as much melanin as darker skin in the lab, the researchers found that the fair skin also had higher levels of prostaglandin-E2, an inflammatory chemical that could explain the tendency to burn.
These findings could mean progress in the effort to better protect fair skin from sun damage.
“Our research shows that melanocytes may play a role in UVR-induced inflammation, so targeting these cells with anti-inflammatory interventions could offer a new way of protecting more vulnerable skin types from sunburn,” says professor Des Tobin. “Clearly something within fair skins is also preventing melanocytes from making protective melanin to prevent the harm caused by UVR and we will be focusing further research on this area.”
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