The relative expression of a number of key mediators of human pigmentation including tyrosinase, tyrosinase related protein-1 (TYRP1), endothelin-1 and adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) proteins were analysed and quantified in immunohistochemically stained skin sections using semiquantitative computer assisted image analysis. Comparisons were made between a range of different ethnic skin types including European, Chinese, Mexican, Indian and African at both chronically photoexposed and photoprotected sites. Melanocyte number varied little with ethnicity except in the European group which had 60–80% more melanocytes than other skin types (P < 0.01, n = 10; Student Neuman–Keuls). However, melanocyte number was increased ∼twofold in chronically photoexposed skin of all ethnic groups (P < 0.001, n = 48; paired t-test). Tyrosinase protein expression in melanocytes did not vary with ethnicity, but TYRP1 protein was significantly elevated (∼2.6-fold) in darkly pigmented African and Indian skin types compared with lightly pigmented Mexican, Chinese and European skin types. In melanocytes from chronically photoexposed skin, there was a modest but significant increase in the expression of tyrosinase protein (∼1.2-fold, P < 0.001, n = 48; paired t-test), together with a significant and slightly larger increase in the expression of TYRP1 protein (∼1.6-fold, P < 0.005, n = 48; paired t-test). In contrast, the expression of endothelin-1 and ACTH showed no significant variation with either ethnicity or photoexposure. These data are consistent with the view that maintenance of a chronically hyperpigmented phenotype in chronically photoexposed human skin is largely the result of a stable increase in the number of tyrosinase positive melanocytes at these sites. Moreover, the observed ethnic variation in TYRP1 protein expression suggests that TYRP1 may play a significant role in mediating ethnic differences in melanogenesis and constitutive skin pigmentation in vivo.