Mon | Sep 27, 2021

Garth Rattray | Can melanin be toxic?

Published:Monday | March 1, 2021 | 12:07 AM

Nature gave us C18H10N2O4 (18 elements of carbon, 10 of hydrogen, two of nitrogen and four of oxygen) to protect us from the rays of the sun that can cause skin cancer. The early humans had a lot of this chemical but, with migration and the changing environment that it brings, various races lost some of it because it wasn’t needed as much as before.

C18H10N2O4 is produced in and expressed by specific cells, melanocytes. Dermal melanocytes are in the basal layer of the skin. These cells are in the deepest part of the epidermis but above the dermis. Africans and Indians have the greatest number of melanocytes, but, curiously, people with pale skin don’t have that much less. However, in those people, the melanin is not as easily expressed (made manifest) as it is in darker-skinned people. There are three types of melanin – eumelanin, which gives skin a brown colour; pheomelanin, which gives skin a red colour; and neuromelanin, found in the brain. Only people with the genetic mutation called albinism, have very little or no melanin – all others have similar amounts – yes, ALL others, including Caucasians.

An online search described the appearance of C18H10N2O4 (melanin) under the microscope as, “…brown, non-refractile and finely granular with individual granules having a diameter of less than 800 nanometres”. Which means that it is not black, yet it is described as black, and the entire race of African people is described as Negro (which means ‘black’). I think that is unfair because all other races are categorised based on their region of origin and not the hue of their skin.

Sunlight increases the production and expression/concentration of melanin within the skin. This is for protection against the potentially harmful ultraviolet sunrays. Too much ultraviolet light can cause a type of skin cancer. However, sunlight also stimulates the production of vitamin D, which is very important for bone, teeth and muscle health, and for our immune system. Therefore, the only natural but minor drawback of C18H10N2O4 is that, because it helps to block the sun’s rays, it’s apparent that dark-skinned people need more sunlight exposure to get good levels of vitamin D production.


It is therefore baffling that a chemical that has the natural advantages of being protective, has somehow given an entire race of people an extreme socio-economic disadvantage. C18H10N2O4 isn’t even skin deep; it is only as deep as the upper layer of skin. C18H10N2O4 does not confer any moral or attitudinal characteristics. C18H10N2O4 does not predispose anyone to laziness, nastiness, dishonesty or violence. Although the hue of the skin is socially inconsequential, it has become a liability in many countries; surprisingly, even in some of those countries in which there is a significant preponderance of people with melanin-producing integument.

Slavery has been around for eons. The trans-atlantic slave trade was not the first but it was the most widespread, most financially rewarding for the colonising nations, most cruel, most long-lasting, most inhumane, most dehumanising, most egregious, most socially/culturally disruptive, and the most effective in causing indefinite prejudice against an entire race of people. The unfair association with the negativity/uncleanness of the word ‘black’ and the positivity/purity of the word ‘white’ does not help.

In many countries, people with a high expression of C18H10N2O4 are sometimes systemically disenfranchised, impoverished, undereducated, targeted by the police, deprived of equal health and social opportunities, and therefore more likely to end up the victims of various disease and involved in criminal activities. In those countries, they are disproportionally under-represented at the management levels, representational politics and the judicial system. They are also disproportionally over-represented in the unemployment lines and penal institutions.

C18H10N2O4 must be toxic because it can damn people to poverty, lack of amenities, ill health, societal and institutional brutality. I often wonder how such a wonderful and protective chemical can lead to such pain, suffering and death for so many people and for so long.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and