To investigate age and gender trends in facultative and constitutive skin pigmentation we measured skin pigmentation non-invasively and objectively by skin reflectance spectroscopy in 653 caucasians (336 females and 317 males; mean age 38 years, range 0–85) who were not using artificial tanning devices. In all subjects, measurements were performed in the late winter and pre-spring period at five sites exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation: the forehead, the upper chest, the upper back and the lateral and medial aspects of the upper arm, and in UV-unexposed buttock skin. Constitutive pigmentation at the buttocks was highest in the first years of life and then decreased substantially during the first two decades of life (P < 0.01). After the age of 25 years, buttock pigmentation remained at a constant level (P = 0.20). There was no gender difference in constitutive pigmentation. Facultative skin pigmentation increased with age for all the measured sites with the highest levels found at the lateral aspect of the upper arm. Based on observations in this study we propose the idea of a ‘sun exposure index’ (SEI) for individuals, based on objective measurements of skin pigmentation. The SEI is calculated as the increase in facultative pigmentation above the constitutive level and is expressed as a percentage of the constitutive level. The SEI appeared to be related to cumulative lifetime UV exposure and may be used in epidemiological research as an objective estimate of UV exposure at different body sites in caucasians.