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What category is skin color?

Skin color is a complex biological trait that is influenced by multiple genetic and environmental factors. In humans, skin color ranges from very dark brown to pale pink and is primarily determined by the amount and type of melanin pigment produced in the skin. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes and serves as the body’s natural sunscreen by absorbing ultraviolet radiation. The many shades of skin color form a continuous spectrum, although they are often categorized into a few broad groups.

Skin color is one of the most noticeable ways in which humans vary in appearance and has long been used as a basis for classifying populations into different racial or ethnic groups. However, there are no truly objective or discrete categories that capture the full range of human skin tones. From a biological perspective, skin color is best understood as a gradient of overlapping phenotypes influenced by genetics, environment, and cultural definitions. This article examines how skin color is produced biologically, variations across global populations, and the validity and limitations of using skin color categories to classify humans.

Biology of Skin Color

Skin color is determined by the amount and type of melanin pigments produced by melanocytes in the skin’s epidermis. Melanocytes produce two main types of melanin: eumelanin which appears dark brown or black, and pheomelanin which appears reddish-yellow. All people have roughly the same number of melanocytes, but the melanocytes of some individuals produce higher amounts of melanin.

Melanin production is controlled by over 100 genes that regulate aspects such as the structure, quantity, and distribution of melanin granules within skin cells. The most well-studied melanin-related genes include:

  • MC1R – a key regulator of melanin production and type (pheomelanin vs eumelanin). Variants are associated with pale skin, freckling, and red hair.
  • OCA2 – involved in eumelanin production. Variants can cause albinism (extremely pale skin).
  • SLC24A5 – regulates melanosome pH and calcium ion levels. A variant of this gene explains 25-40% of the skin color difference between Europeans and West Africans.

In addition to genetic factors, skin color is influenced by environmental factors like ultraviolet radiation and nutrition. Exposure to UV radiation stimulates melanin production (tanning), while low levels can lead to reduced pigmentation. The distribution of melanin also varies across the body due to sun exposure patterns.

Distribution of Skin Pigmentation

While individual skin color is complex and continuous, geographically distant populations show general trends in the distribution of skin color.

Region Typical Skin Pigmentation
Africa (excluding Sahara) Very dark brown
South Asia Brown
Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia Intermediate/olive skin
Europe Pale, often with pink undertones
East Asia Light skin with yellowish undertones
Americas High diversity from pale to dark brown
Oceania Medium to very dark brown

This broad geographical pattern in skin color is thought to have evolved primarily in response to differences in UV radiation exposure. Areas around the equator receive intense UV radiation year-round. High levels of melanin protect against UV damage but also block vitamin D production, so in low UV environments, pale skin allows more vitamin D production.

Skin Color Variation Within Regions

While the general global patterns exist, there is significant variation and overlap in skin colors within regions and populations. Some key examples:

  • Africa: The San people of southern Africa have tan or yellowish skin compared to equatorial Africans.
  • South Asia: Southern Indians tend to have darker brown skin than northern Indians.
  • Europe: Southern Europeans typically have olive skin while Scandinavians are very pale.
  • East Asia: Southeast Asians tend to have darker skin than Northeast Asians.
  • Americas: There is tremendous diversity, including pale northern Europeans, olive-toned Spanish settlers, and indigenous groups with brown skin.

In addition, human migration and genetic admixture over centuries has led to highly diverse skin colors within countries and cities throughout the world. Overall, there are no sharp boundaries between human population groups based on skin color.

Categorizing Skin Color

Nevertheless, skin color has long been used as one of the primary criteria for classifying human populations and races. A few examples of historical categorizations include:

  • 3-5 major races – 19th century racial taxonomies often divided humans into 3-5 races based on skin color, facial features, and other physical traits. Groupings typically included “Caucasian” (white), “Mongoloid” (yellow), “Negroid” (black) races.
  • Von Luschan’s chromatic scale – Developed in the 1920s, this was a 36 point scale ranging from “pale white” to “deep black” used to classify skin colors into 5-6 categories.
  • Fitzpatrick scale – Developed in 1975, this is a 6 category scale (I-VI) grouping skin colors based on tanning ability after sun exposure.

These categorizations were flawed attempts to draw clear racial boundaries where none exist in reality. Today, scientists reject the notion that reasonably discrete or biologically meaningful human races can be defined purely by skin color or other physical attributes.

Limitations of Skin Color Categories

Skin color categories suffer from several important limitations:

  • They do not capture the continuous nature of human skin color variation.
  • Boundaries between categories are arbitrary and subjective.
  • They can conceal vastly greater genetic diversity that exists within groups relative to between groups.
  • They often reflect outdated notions of biological race from the 19th/early 20th century.
  • They risk reinforcing racist ideologies and race-based discrimination.

Overall, while general patterns exist, human population groups do not fall into natural, discrete categories based on skin color. Furthermore, skin color itself is a poor proxy for the overall genetic diversity and evolutionary relationships between human populations. While skin color may be used descriptively, racial or ethnic classifications based solely on skin color have little scientific validity.

Significance of Skin Color

Although discrete skin color categories are problematic, skin color itself is still a salient characteristic with social and health implications:

  • It has played a major role in racism, discrimination, and inequality throughout history.
  • Darker skin is linked to vitamin D deficiency at high latitudes; lighter skin is linked to folate deficiency.
  • Darker skin provides more UV protection but also increases risk of rickets and calcium deficiency.
  • Those with darker skin may need more sunlight exposure or supplementation to maintain adequate vitamin D levels.

Skin color affects individuals’ experiences and health outcomes in society. However, these effects arise from social perceptions, not any inherent biological significance of discrete skin color groups themselves. Understanding the gradations and fluidity of human skin color remains important for studying the drivers of skin color evolution and its impacts on health.


Skin color forms a continuum of overlapping variation influenced by sun exposure and other factors. While patterns exist at the population level, there are no clear-cut boundaries that allow for natural categorization of humans into discrete skin color-based races. Furthermore, the great genetic diversity that exists within groups makes skin color an extremely poor proxy for overall genetic relationships between human populations. Attempts to classify humanity into races based on skin color promote outdated notions of biological race that have fueled racism and discrimination. While human skin color variation follows intriguing geographic patterns shaped by evolution, clear categories grounded in biological science do not exist.