There are many potential synonyms for the term “brown skin” that can be used to describe various skin tones and ethnicities. Choosing sensitive and appropriate language is important when discussing race or skin color. Some common synonyms and related terms include:
Tan – Describes a light to medium brown skin tone resulting from sun exposure or natural pigmentation. Considered neutral and inoffensive.
Olive – Refers to a moderate brown skin tone with greenish or yellowish undertones. Often used for Mediterranean or Middle Eastern skin tones.
Tawny – A soft golden, tan, or light brown skin color. Used positively when describing skin.
Bronze – Suggests a warm, brown skin tone like a tan. Sometimes used for East Asian skin tones.
Cinnamon – A reddish-brown skin tone named after the spice. Used especially for South Asian skin tones.
Caramel – Describes a light to medium brown skin with yellow, red, or golden undertones. A sweet and positive description.
Mocha – A rich, warm medium to dark brown akin to coffee with milk. Used across ethnicities.
Umber – A yellowish-brown to dark brown shade inspired by the natural clay. Poetic color description.
Russet – A reddish-brown tone named after the potato. Used positively for a range of ethnicities.
Sepia – Refers to a grayish, warm brown tone like antique photographs. Softer way to describe dark skin.
Terms for Black and African Skin Tones
Ebony – A dense black tone named after the wood. Represents black beauty positively.
Jet – An intense, dark black skin tone like the mineral. Stylish way to describe very dark skin.
Raisin – A rich black skin tone with purple, red or brown undertones.
Licorice – Describes extremely dark brown or black skin resembling the candy.
Dated or Offensive Terms
Swarthy – An outdated, colonial term for dark skin, sometimes offensive.
Dusky – Archaic, idiomatic term for dark skin, may have negative connotations.
Scientific Skin Tone Descriptions
Fitzpatrick Scale – A numerical scale classifying skin tones from I (pale white) to VI (deeply pigmented dark brown to black). Developed by dermatologist Thomas Fitzpatrick to assess risk of sunburn and skin cancer.
Von Luschan’s Chromatic Scale – A 36-point scale created in the 1920s to classify skin colors. Scored from 1 (fairest white) to 36 (absolute black). No longer considered appropriate terminology.
Munsell Color System – Designates skin tones by hue, value, and chroma on a scientific numerical scale. Used in anthropology and ethnography.
Cultural and Ethnic Terms
Fair – Common polite term for light or pale skin tones of European descent.
Olive – Associated with Mediterranean, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and sometimes South Asian skin tones.
Brown – Broad term encompassing light to dark brown skin of Asian, Hispanic, Native American and multiracial descent.
Black – Preferred term for those of African or Caribbean descent with very dark brown to black skin.
Almond – Describes the commonly warm, yellowish undertone of East Asian skin.
Amber – Used for South Asian skin tones, which can range from golden tan to reddish-brown.
Native American skin tones vary widely but are often characterized as reddish-brown or copper.
Hispanic/Latino ethnicity includes diverse skin tones from fair to olive to tawny to brown.
There are many options to positively describe a range of skin tones beyond just “brown skin.” Consider context, culture and what feels affirming to the individual or ethnicities involved. Avoid outdated or offensive color terms. Focus on inclusive, respectful and descriptive language.