Role of light in human skin color variation


  • This work was supported by U.S.P.H.S. Grant 5-R01-CA-12108 and U.S.P.H.S. Grant 5-R01-CA-06097. We would like to express our thanks to Dr. Peter W. Post for his helpful suggestions in preparing this manuscript for publication.


The major source of color in human skin derives from the presence within the epidermis of specialized melanin-bearing organelles, the melanosomes. Tanning of human skin on exposure to ultraviolet light results from increased amounts of melanin within the epidermis. Melanosomes synthesized by melanocytes are acquired by keratinocytes and transported within them to the epidermal surface. In some cases, the melanosomes are catabolized en route. New information indicates that the multicellular epidermal melanin unit (melanocyte and associated pool of keratinocytes) rather than the melanocyte alone is the focal point for the control of melanin metabolism within mammalian epidermis. Gross human skin color derives from the visual impact of the summed melanin pigmentation of the many epidermal melanin units. In theory, constitutive skin color in man designates the genetically-determined levels of melanin pigmentation developed in the absence of exposure to solar radiations or other environmental influences; facultative skin color or “tan” characterizes the increases in melanin pigmentation above the constitutive level induced by ultraviolet light. The details of genetic regulation of pigment metabolism within the epidermal melanin units are being clarified. In some mammals at least, the function of epidermal melanin units is significantly influenced by hormones which may be regulated by radiations received through the eyes. Based on an evolutionary history of the human family which exceeds ten million years, it is proposed that melanin pigmentation may have played a number of roles in human adaptations to changing biologic and physical environments.