Diversity of human hair pigmentation as studied by chemical analysis of eumelanin and pheomelanin

J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2011 Dec;25(12):1369-80. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-3083.2011.04278.x.


Hair colour is one of the most conspicuous phenotypes in humans, ranging from black, brown, blond to red. This diversity arises mostly from the quantity and ratio of the black-dark brown eumelanin and the reddish-brown pheomelanin. To study the chemical basis underlying the diversity of hair colour, we have developed several chemical methods to quantify those two pigments. Alkaline H(2) O(2) oxidation affords pyrrole-2,3,5-tricarboxylic acid (PTCA) as a eumelanin marker and thiazole-2,4,5-tricarboxylic acid (TTCA) as a pheomelanin marker. Pheomelanin can also be analysed as 4-amino-3-hydroxyphenylalanine (4-AHP) after hydroiodic acid hydrolysis. Using those methods, we evaluated the contents of eumelanin and pheomelanin (the 'chemical' phenotype) in human hairs of black, dark brown, brown, light brown, blond and red colour (the 'visual' phenotype). Eumelanin contents decrease in that order, with a trace but constant level of pheomelanin, except for red hair which contains about equal levels of pheomelanin and eumelanin. Thus, the chemical phenotype correlates well with the visual phenotype. The genotype of melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R), a gene regulating the red hair phenotype, is predictive of hair melanin expressed as the log value of eumelanin to pheomelanin ratio, with a dosage effect evident. Hair melanin contents were also analysed in patients with various hypopigmentary disorders including Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome, Menkes disease, proopiomelanocortin deficiency, cystinosis, malnutrition and trace metal deficiency. The chemical phenotype helped evaluate the precise effects of each disease on pigmentation. In studies of human hair, the chemical phenotype will find more and more application as an objective measure of pigmentation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Hair Color*
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen Peroxide / chemistry
  • Melanins / analysis*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Pyrroles / chemistry


  • Melanins
  • Pyrroles
  • pheomelanin
  • eumelanin
  • pyrrole-2,3,5-tricarboxylic acid
  • Hydrogen Peroxide