Melanin, the pigment produced by specialized cells, melanocytes, is responsible for skin and hair color. Skin pigmentation is an important protective mechanism against the DNA damaging and mutagenic effects of solar ultraviolet radiation (UV). It is acknowledged that exposure to UV is the main etiological environmental factor for all forms of skin cancer, including melanoma. DNA repair capacity is another major factor that determines the risk for skin cancer. Human melanocytes synthesize eumelanin, the dark brown form of melanin, as well as pheomelanin, which is reddish-yellow in color. The relative rates of eumelanin and pheomelanin synthesis by melanocytes determine skin color and the sensitivity of skin to the drastic effects of solar UV. Understanding the complex regulation of melanocyte function and how it responds to solar UV has a huge impact on developing novel photoprotective strategies to prevent skin cancer, particularly melanoma, the most fatal form, which originates from melanocytes. This review provides an overview of the known differences in the photoprotective effects of eumelanin versus pheomelanin, how these two forms of melanin are regulated genetically and biochemically, and their impact on the DNA damaging effects of UV exposure. Additionally, this review briefly discusses the role of paracrine factors, focusing on α-melanocortin (α-melanocyte stimulating hormone; α-MSH), in regulating melanogenesis and the response of melanocytes to UV, and describes a chemoprevention strategy based on targeting the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) by analogs of its physiological agonist α-MSH.
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