Human skin color

Extended Coloured family from South Africa showing some spectrum of human skin coloration

Human skin color ranges in variety from the darkest brown to the lightest hues. An individual's skin pigmentation is the result of genetics, being the product of both of the individual's biological parents' genetic makeup, and exposure to sun. In evolution, skin pigmentation in human beings evolved by a process of natural selection primarily to regulate the amount of ultraviolet radiation penetrating the skin, controlling its biochemical effects.[1]

The actual skin color of different humans is affected by many substances, although the single most important substance is the pigment melanin. Melanin is produced within the skin in cells called melanocytes and it is the main determinant of the skin color of darker-skinned humans. The skin color of people with light skin is determined mainly by the bluish-white connective tissue under the dermis and by the hemoglobin circulating in the veins of the dermis. The red color underlying the skin becomes more visible, especially in the face, when, as consequence of physical exercise or the stimulation of the nervous system (anger, fear), arterioles dilate.[2] Color is not entirely uniform across an individual's skin; for example, the skin of the palm and the sole is lighter than most other skin, and this is especially noticeable in darker-skinned people.[3]

There is a direct correlation between the geographic distribution of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and the distribution of indigenous skin pigmentation around the world. Areas that receive higher amounts of UVR, generally located closer to the equator, tend to have darker-skinned populations. Areas that are far from the tropics and closer to the poles have lower intensity of UVR, which is reflected in lighter-skinned populations.[4] Researchers suggest that human populations over the past 50,000 years have changed from dark-skinned to light-skinned and vice versa as they migrated to different UV zones,[5] and that such major changes in pigmentation may have happened in as little as 100 generations (≈2,500 years) through selective sweeps.[5][6][7] Natural skin color can also darken as a result of tanning due to exposure to sunlight. The leading theory is that skin color adapts to intense sunlight irradiation to provide partial protection against the ultraviolet fraction that produces damage and thus mutations in the DNA of the skin cells.[8][9] In addition, it has been observed that adult human females on average are significantly lighter in skin pigmentation than males. Females need more calcium during pregnancy and lactation. The body synthesizes vitamin D from sunlight, which helps it absorb calcium. Females evolved to have lighter skin so their bodies absorb more calcium.[10]

The social significance of differences in skin color has varied across cultures and over time, as demonstrated with regard to social status and discrimination.

Melanin and genes

Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes in a process called melanogenesis. Melanin is made within small membrane–bound packages called melanosomes. As they become full of melanin, they move into the slender arms of melanocytes, from where they are transferred to the keratinocytes. Under normal conditions, melanosomes cover the upper part of the keratinocytes and protect them from genetic damage. One melanocyte supplies melanin to thirty-six keratinocytes according to signals from the keratinocytes. They also regulate melanin production and replication of melanocytes.[7] People have different skin colors mainly because their melanocytes produce different amount and kinds of melanin.

The genetic mechanism behind human skin color is mainly regulated by the enzyme tyrosinase, which creates the color of the skin, eyes, and hair shades.[11][12] Differences in skin color are also attributed to differences in size and distribution of melanosomes in the skin.[7] Melanocytes produce two types of melanin. The most common form of biological melanin is eumelanin, a brown-black polymer of dihydroxyindole carboxylic acids, and their reduced forms. Most are derived from the amino acid tyrosine. Eumelanin is found in hair, areola, and skin, and the hair colors gray, black, blond, and brown. In humans, it is more abundant in people with dark skin. Pheomelanin, a pink to red hue is found in particularly large quantities in red hair,[13] the lips, nipples, glans of the penis, and vagina.[14]

Both the amount and type of melanin produced is controlled by a number of genes that operate under incomplete dominance.[15] One copy of each of the various genes is inherited from each parent. Each gene can come in several alleles, resulting in the great variety of human skin tones. Melanin controls the amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun that penetrates the skin by absorption. While UV radiation can assist in the production of vitamin D, excessive exposure to UV can damage health.