Pheomelanin from human red hair (RHM) produces considerably more cellular damage in Ehrlich ascites carcinoma cells when subjected to radiations of wavelength 320-700 nm than eumelanin from black hair (BHM). Irradiation of RHM generated large amounts of superoxide while BHM did not produce detectable amounts of superoxide. The present investigations describe the effects of irradiation of mast cells in the presence of various natural and synthetic melanins. Irradiation of mast cells in the presence of RHM and red hair melanoprotein released large amounts of histamine while BHM and synthetic melanins prepared from dopa, cysteinyldopa, or a mixture of dopa and cysteinyldopa did not release histamine. The release of histamine at lower concentrations of RHM was not accompanied by the release of 51Cr from chromium-loaded cells, suggesting that this release was of noncytotoxic nature. On the other hand, the release of histamine at higher concentrations of RHM was due to cell lysis since both histamine and cytoplasmic marker 51Cr were released to the same extent. The release evoked by large concentration RHM was not inhibited by superoxide dismutase or catalase. This suggests that the cell lysis under these conditions was not due to H2O2 or O-2. The finding that mast cells release histamine when irradiated in the presence of RHM suggests that the immediate and late-phase reactions seen in sunburn may in part be due to the release of mediators from these cells.