AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

Skin Pigmentation

Skin Pigmentation

From pale to dark and everything in between, human skin color covers a wide range. The Pantone company, a leading authority on standardized color reproduction, has identified 110 different skin tones. Have you ever wondered how you inherited your unique skin tone? An AncestryDNA® test can tell you more about your genes and your skin pigmentation.

More About Skin Pigmentation

Your skin pigmentation is determined mostly by melanin—the pigment that determines the color of your skin, eyes, and hair. Melanin protects your DNA from the sun's damaging UV rays, which can cause wrinkles, sagging, and even skin cancer.

There are two types of melanin: eumelanin (a brownish-black pigment) and pheomelanin (a reddish-yellow pigment). In general, the more melanin your skin cells make, the darker your skin.

Although people have a similar number of cells that can make melanin, the amount of melanin that these cells makes varies from person to person. That's why there’s such variation in human skin color.

Genetics of Skin Pigmentation

Like eye and hair color you get the DNA for skin color from your parents. And like hair and eye color, the genetics of skin color inheritance are complex.

You have dozens of genes that influence melanin production—both how much and what types of melanin your body makes. And the proteins these genes code for can combine in many different ways, producing a spectrum of skin tones, even in the same family.

More specifically the pigmentation of your skin is the result of your particular version of each of these genes—and how the proteins from each version interact. Your particular set of genes work together to produce your unique shade.

What Science Says About Skin Pigmentation

Your genes aren't the only thing that can affect your skin tone. Sunshine, diet, and overall health can also play a role.

In a limited sense, what you eat can also impact your skin tone. For instance, a relatively rare condition known as carotenemia involves skin turning yellow-orange due to high levels of carotene in the blood. It's often caused by eating a lot of fruits and vegetables high in carotene content, such as carrots.

Some health problems can also change your skin color. For example, hepatitis, liver disease, gallstones, tumors, and other conditions can cause jaundice or yellowing of the skin.

Additional Facts About Skin Pigmentation

Humans make different amounts of melanin. Why? Melanin helps regulate the supply of certain vitamins.

Too much sunlight can lower your supply of folate, a B vitamin your body needs. Too little sunlight can make it hard to make enough vitamin D. Melanin helps you strike a balance.

Sometimes the lack of melanin creates interesting patterns on the skin. For instance, vitiligo is a condition that affects skin pigmentation, creating white blotches. It happens because the cells that make melanin die or stop working. Despite records going back to ancient times, scientists still don't know why this happens to cells.


Basu Mallick C, Iliescu FM, Möls M, et al. The Light Skin Allele of SLC24A5 in South Asians and Europeans Shares Identity by Descent. Akey JM, ed. PLoS Genetics. 2013;9(11):e1003912. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1003912.

Skin pigmentation Is far more genetically complex than previously thought. ScienceDaily. December 1, 2017.

Gibbons, Ann. How Europeans Evolved White Skin. Science. April 2, 2015

rs642742. SNPedia. Accessed March 7, 2018.

Sturm RA, Duffy DL. Human Pigmentation Genes under Environmental Selection.Genome Biology. 2012;13(9):248. doi:10.1186/gb-2012-13-9-248.

Sulem P, Gudbjartsson DF, Stacey Simon N, et al. Genetic Determinants of Hair, Eye and Skin Pigmentation in Europeans. Nature Genetics 2007;39: 1443–52. doi: 10.1038/ng.2007.13.

Zimmer, Carl. Genes for Skin Color Rebut Dated Notions of Race, Researchers Say. New York Times. Oct. 12, 2017.

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