Humans vary >100-fold in their sensitivity to the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. The main determinants of sensitivity are melanin pigmentation and less-well-characterized differences in skin inflammation and repair processes. Pigmentation has a high heritability, but susceptibility to cancers of the skin, a key marker of sun sensitivity, is less heritable. Despite a large number of murine coat-color mutations, only one gene in humans, the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), is known to account for substantial variation in skin and hair color and in skin cancer incidence. MC1R encodes a 317-amino acid G-coupled receptor that controls the relative amounts of the two major melanin classes, eumelanin and pheomelanin. Most persons with red hair are homozygous for alleles of the MC1R gene that show varying degrees of diminished function. More than 65 human MC1R alleles with nonsynonymous changes have been identified, and current evidence suggests that many of them vary in their physiological activity, such that a graded series of responses can be achieved on the basis of (i) dosage effects (of one or two alleles) and (ii) individual differences in the pharmacological profile in response to ligand. Thus, a single locus, identified within a Mendelian framework, can contribute significantly to human pigmentary variation.