The cell biology of human hair follicle pigmentation


D. J. Tobin, e-mail:


Although we have made significant progress in understanding the regulation of the UVR-exposed epidermal-melanin unit, we know relatively little about how human hair follicle pigmentation is regulated. Progress has been hampered by gaps in our knowledge of the hair growth cycle’s controls, to which hair pigmentation appears tightly coupled. However, pigment cell researchers may have overly focused on the follicular melanocytes of the nocturnal and UVR-shy mouse as a proxy for human epidermal melanocytes. Here, I emphasize the epidermis-follicular melanocyte pluralism of human skin, as research models for vitiligo, alopecia areata and melanoma, personal care/cosmetics innovation. Further motivation could be in finding answers to why hair follicle and epidermal pigmentary units remain broadly distinct? Why melanomas tend to originate from epidermal rather than follicular melanocytes? Why multiple follicular melanocyte sub-populations exist? Why follicular melanocytes are more sensitive to aging influences? In this perspective, I attempt to raise the status of the human hair follicle melanocyte and highlight some species-specific issues involved which the general reader of the pigmentation literature (with its substantial mouse-based data) may not fully appreciate.