Eye color is one of the most distinctive physical traits in humans. The color of the iris, the structure that controls how much light enters the pupil, determines the eye color we see. While some eye colors like blue and green are quite common, others like grey and grey-brown eyes are much rarer globally. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how common grey and grey-brown eyes are in different parts of the world.
What causes grey and grey-brown eye color?
Eye color is determined by the amount and type of melanin pigment in the iris. There are two types of melanin:
– Eumelanin: This pigment produces brown and black hues.
– Pheomelanin: This pigment produces reddish and yellowish hues.
People with grey or grey-brown eyes have a small amount of melanin in their irises. Their eyes appear grey or grey-brown because of a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering. This is the same principle that makes the sky appear blue. The melanin pigment in grey eyes is so sparse that it only absorbs a small portion of light. The rest of the light gets scattered, which makes the eyes look grey or blue-grey.
The exact genetics behind grey and grey-brown eye color are not fully understood. But it likely involves variants of several different genes that help regulate melanin production and distribution in the iris. Some of the key genes involved may include:
Many experts believe that grey eyes are an intermediate eye color between blue and brown. People with grey-brown eyes likely have small amounts of both eumelanin and pheomelanin in their irises, resulting in a blending of blue/grey and brown hues.
Global distribution of grey and grey-brown eyes
On a global scale, grey and grey-brown eyes are quite rare. However, they occur somewhat more frequently in certain parts of the world, especially Europe. Here’s an overview of regions where these eye colors are most common:
|Region||Grey/Grey-Brown Eye Percentage|
|Northern and Eastern Europe||5-10%|
|United States and Canada||3-5%|
|Asia||Less than 1%|
As the table shows, grey and grey-brown eyes are most prevalent in northern and eastern European countries. An estimated 5-10% of people in places like Russia, the Baltic region, Finland, and Scandinavia have these eye colors. They are less common further south in Europe at around 1-5% frequency.
Outside of Europe, grey eyes are still quite rare globally but can be found with somewhat higher frequency among Caucasians in the United States, Canada, and parts of South America at 1-5%. They are exceptionally uncommon in Africa and Asia at less than 1% prevalence.
Countries with the highest percentages of grey and grey-brown eyes
While grey eyes can be found across many parts of Europe, some countries stand out for having particularly high percentages of these rare eye colors. Here are a few European nations where grey and grey-brown eyes are most common:
Scotland and Ireland
Around 8-10% of the population in Scotland and Ireland has grey eyes. These countries have some of the world’s highest concentrations of people with light eyes. The cool, overcast climates likely contributed to this evolution over time.
Finland and Estonia
An estimated 8-15% of people in Finland and up to 10% in Estonia have grey eyes. These Northern European countries have high rates of fair complexions and light eyes like blue and green. Grey is also quite common.
Russia has one of the largest populations of people with grey and grey-brown eyes at around 5-10% prevalence. This may be linked to Russia’s origins among Eastern European and Nordic tribes.
Around 8% of the population in Denmark is thought to have grey eyes. Like other Scandinavian countries, Denmark has high levels of light pigmentation and light eye colors.
An estimated 8-12% of Icelanders have grey eyes, making it another country with unusually high levels of this rare eye color. Harsh, cold climates likely selected for lighter coloration.
So in summary, the countries with the globally highest percentages of grey and grey-brown eyes include Scotland, Ireland, Northern European nations like Finland and Estonia, and Eastern European countries like Russia. The cold northern climates and light pigmentation of populations in these regions provided favorable conditions for grey eyes to emerge and persist. But they are still considered unusual even in those countries compared to more common colors like blue.
Ethnic groups with higher rates of grey and grey-brown eyes
While overall quite rare, grey and grey-brown eyes appear more frequently in people with ancestry from certain ethnic backgrounds. Some ethnic groups with higher percentages include:
Eastern European ethnic groups, including Slavic peoples like Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians, have some of the highest rates of grey eyes globally. Estimates range from 5-10% prevalence.
Irish and Scottish
Irish and Scottish ethnic ancestry is associated with increased grey and grey-brown eye color compared to most other populations. An estimated 5-10% of people with this Celtic heritage have grey eyes.
Scandinavian and Baltic ethnic groups, such as Finns, Swedes, and Lithuanians, also have elevated rates of grey eyes around 5-15% frequency.
Germanic and Nordic ethnic backgrounds, including German, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic peoples also correlate to higher levels of grey eyes. Around 5-10% is common in these groups.
While more common in Scottish/Irish British ancestry, grey eyes are also more prevalent in British ethnic groups overall compared to other populations at around 2-5% frequency.
So in summary, Eastern European, Irish/Scottish, Scandinavian, Germanic, and broader Northern European ethnicities see higher-than-average rates of grey eyes, albeit still quite uncommon overall compared to blue eyes. Having ancestry from these groups however does increase the probabilities of having greyish eye coloration.
How age affects grey and grey-brown eye color
Unlike some other eye colors, grey eyes typically don’t change dramatically over a person’s lifespan. However, there are a few subtle ways that grey and grey-brown eye color often develops with age:
– Newborns with grey eyes often have a darker, slate grey color that lightens over infancy. Grey eyes typically reach their lightest shades by early childhood.
– Toddlers and young children with grey eyes may see their eyes shift slightly from a pure grey to more grey-brown. Increased melanin during development can add hints of brown.
– Adolescents and younger adults often have the clearest, truest grey eyes with minimal hazel/brown tones mixed in.
– From middle age onward, grey eyes often begin to pick up more brown flecks and become more hazel-like. The melanin content increases over time.
– Elderly people with grey eyes commonly have a more pronounced grey-brown color rather than pure icy grey. But the eyes rarely become fully brown.
So in summary, grey eye color tends to be lightest in mid-to-late childhood and early adulthood. Late adulthood sees an increase in melanin that makes the eyes appear slightly warmer toned and less icy grey. But the majority of change happens in infancy, with only subtle shifts in purity of color after toddlerhood.
|Age Range||Typical Grey/Grey-Brown Eye Color|
|Newborn||Darker, slate grey|
|Early Childhood||Light, icy grey|
|Adolescence||Pure pale grey|
|Adulthood||Clear light grey|
|Middle Age||Grey with occasional brown flecks|
How rare are different types of grey eyes?
Not all grey eyes are the same shade. Within the broad grey eye category, some subtypes and hues are much rarer than others. Here is an overview of some of the rarest grey eye shades and phenotypes:
The lightest, purest form of grey with an almost mirrored or silver metallic sheen. Extremely rare even among grey eyed people. Thought to be present in less than 1% of those with grey eyes.
The darkest grey eye shade that appears darker gunmetal grey or charcoal in color. Also exceptionally rare and estimated to represent less than 2% of grey eyes.
Grey with Green Center
Grey eyes with a distinctive green band around the pupil or green flecks are also very uncommon and found in less than 5% of grey-eyed people.
Grey with Central Heterochromia
Grey eyes with sectoral heterochromia, where the central part around the pupil is a different color like yellow or amber. Very rare and seen in less than 2% of grey eyes.
Grey with Red Ring
Some grey eyes have an outer ring or limbal ring of reddish color around the edge of the iris. This reddish fringe is also very uncommon and only present in an estimated 2-5% of grey eyes.
So in summary, the rarest and most distinctive subtypes of grey eyes include silver-grey, charcoal, and grey paired with central heterochromia or rings of color like green and red flecks. Even for grey eyes, these special phenotypes stand out for their rarity and unique beauty.
How do grey eyes compare to other rare eye colors?
Grey eyes are undoubtedly rare globally, but how uncommon are they compared to some other exotic eye colors like green, amber, and violet? Here’s an overview:
Green eyes are more common than grey eyes overall, with an estimated 2% of the global population having some shade of green compared to around 1% with grey eyes. However, shades like hazel-green are still quite rare.
Amber and Gold
Amber/gold eye colors are equally if not rarer than grey eyes, with only around 1% of people estimated to have these golden-yellow hues.
Violet and Red
True violet or red-hued eyes are perhaps the rarest eye colors globally. Their frequencies are estimated at less than 0.1% prevalence worldwide. So violet/red eyes are significantly rarer than grey eyes.
Having two different colored eyes, called heterochromia, is also extremely unusual, with only about 0.06% of people expressing some form of heterochromia. Again, much less common than grey eyes.
So overall, grey eyes are still considered very rare globally. Other uncommon shades like green-hazel, amber, violet, and heterochromic eyes are even less frequently seen around the world. So someone with pure grey eyes can pride themselves on having a truly unique eye color.
What impact do grey eyes have?
While their rarity certainly makes grey eyes visually arresting, are they linked to any other traits or qualities? Here are a few interesting impacts and associations with grey eye color:
Some research has linked lighter eye colors including blue, green, grey, and hazel, to slightly higher rates of introversion. Brighter eyes may be an outward indicator of more inward-focused, shy temperaments.
Higher Alcohol Tolerance
One study found that lighter-eyed individuals, including those with grey eyes, may have higher alcohol tolerance compared to people with dark brown eyes. However, more research is still needed.
Grey, blue, and green-eyed people may be more susceptible to sun glare and brightness due to having less protective pigment in the iris. Wearing sunglasses can help reduce eye strain.
As discussed before, grey eyes significantly correlate with certain European ethnic backgrounds. Spotting grey eyes can therefore be clues to someone’s recent ancestry.
Reliability of Identification
Some research indicates eyewitnesses less accurately identify suspects with lighter eye colors including grey compared to those with distinct dark eyes. This raises reliability issues in criminal identification.
So while their links require more study, grey eyes may have some weak associations with personality tendencies, alcohol sensitivity, vision, genetics, and identification challenges. But more work is needed to substantiate the biological and social significance of this rare eye color.
In conclusion, grey and grey-brown eye colors are globally uncommon, with an estimated 1-5% of people worldwide exhibiting these eye shades. They appear with highest frequency among Northern and Eastern European ethnicities, such as Scottish, Russian, Baltic, and Scandinavian groups. Young to middle-age adults typically showcase the truest grey eye color, while infants and elderly individuals have more grey-ish brown hues mixed in.
Within grey eyes, certain variants and phenomena like silver-grey or central heterochromia markings are exceptionally rare. While their rarity adds striking aesthetic qualities, more research is still needed to understand all the potential genetic, health, and social associations linked to grey eyes. But one thing that???s certain is that grey eyes will continue captivating attention and imaginations across the globe thanks to their beautiful and exotic appearance.