Background  Most of the identified differences between Caucasian and African skin types have been related to the superficial part of the skin, the epidermis. We investigated possible implications of the dermal compartment in cutaneous differences observed between Caucasians and Africans.

Methods  In vivo and in vitro comparative studies were carried out using normal human skin biopsies and the corresponding in vitro reconstructed skin. Skin equivalents were developed with papillary fibroblasts isolated from the superficial dermis of both Caucasian and African skin types. Expression of major components of the dermal–epidermal junction (DEJ) was examined as a function of ethnicity.

Results  Control histological examinations of skin biopsies showed that the African skin type had greater convoluted appearance of the DEJ than the Caucasian skin type. Immunostainings of type IV and VII collagens, laminin 5, and nidogen proteins at the DEJ were lower in African skin compared with Caucasian skin biopsies.

Conclusions  This study brings together new elements on involvement of the papillary dermis in differences between Caucasian and African skin types. As fibroblasts from the superficial dermis cooperate with epidermal keratinocytes in producing protein of the membrane basal zone, present in vivo results suggest that papillary fibroblasts may play a part in the distinct features observed at the DEJ. In preliminary in vitro experiments, differences in several protein expressions contributing to the DEJ framework were found in reconstructed skin models made with papillary fibroblasts from both Caucasian and African skin types. Therefore, in vitro skin equivalents may be useful for better understanding of ethnic skin differences in the future.