Albinism is a genetic disorder that makes affected individuals unable to produce melanin, the natural pigment that gives colour to hair, skin, and eyes, and protects against the harmful effects of UV radiation. Affected individuals have white or pink hair, skin, and irides¹. Since people with albinism do not have protective melanin, they need to take extra care of their skin in the sun. It’s recommended that they apply and reapply sunscreen with an SPF of 50+, UV-protective sunglasses, a hat, and UV-protective clothing when they go outdoors².
People with the disorder are at a high risk of developing sunburn and skin cancer, and their eyes are often sensitive to both sunlight and artificial light². Without melanin, skin is more susceptible to sunburn and skin damage caused by UV radiation. Melanin acts like sunscreen by absorbing some UV radiation before skin cell DNA is damaged. Tanning occurs when skin cells sense danger from UV radiation, and redistribute melanin in an attempt to protect against future damage. Thus, individuals with the disorder are not able to tan.
There are different types of the disorder, but oculocutaneous albinism (OCA) is the most severe¹. Individuals of all ethnicities can have albinism, but certain types are seen primarily in people of certain ethnicities, like sub-Saharan Africans, African-Americans, Native Americans, black South Africans, and East Asians³. The disorder is more common in places close to the equator, but in most populations, about 1 in 20,000 people have the disorder. A study reported that 67% of primary skin cancer patients being treated at a hospital in Eastern Nigeria had the disorder⁴.