Have you ever seen an albino? If you’ve ever seen a white animal with pink eyes, you may have seen an albino version of that animal.
Albino is a word we use to describe a condition called albinism. Albinism can affect human beings and animals, including birds, fish, and amphibians. It can even affect plants!
Albino humans, animals, or plants don’t have the usual amount of pigment or color in their skin. This leads them to appear very pale — sometimes almost pure white — compared to others.
Our skin, eyes and hair usually get their color from a chemical called melanin. Melanin is produced by cells in the skin called melanocytes. Those with albinism can’t produce the normal amount of melanin. As a result, their skin, eyes, and/or hair (or fur or feathers!) lack color.
For example, it’s quite common for those with albinism to have very pale skin and white hair. The eyes might also appear to be red or pink. This is because the iris of the eye has little or no color and the red blood vessels in the eye show through the iris.
Those affected by albinism are often extremely sensitive to sunlight. This is because melanin, in addition to providing color, also protects the skin from the sun. Kids with albinism, for example, must wear strong sunscreen whenever they spend time outdoors. They also often need to wear sunglasses whenever they’re outside, because their eyes tend to be sensitive to sunlight.
Albinism is a hereditary or genetic condition. Some scientists call it achromia, achromasia, or achromatosis. This means it’s passed down through genes from parents. Even if parents aren’t affected by albinism, they can still carry the gene for albinism and pass it on to children.
Not everyone with pale skin has albinism. Likewise, not all white animals are albinos. Sometimes genes give someone a particular coloring completely unrelated to albinism!
Albinism affects about one of every 17,000 people in the United States. It’s usually not a serious condition, though. Kids with albinism are normal like all other kids. They just have less pigment in their skin and must take certain precautions when they’re outside.