Exposure to ultra violet radiation (UVR) is associated with significant long-term deleterious effects such as skin cancer. A well-recognised short-term consequence of UVR is increased skin pigmentation. Pigmentation, whether constitutive or facultative, has widely been viewed as photoprotective, largely because darkly pigmented skin is at a lower risk of photocarcinogenesis than fair skin. Research is increasingly suggesting that the relationship between pigmentation and photoprotection may be far more complex than previously assumed. For example, photoprotection against erythema and DNA damage has been shown to be independent of level of induced pigmentation in human white skin types. Growing evidence now suggests that UVR induced DNA photodamage, and its repair is one of the signals that stimulates melanogenesis and studies suggest that repeated exposure in skin type IV results in faster DNA repair in comparison to skin type II. These findings suggest that tanning may be a measure of inducible DNA repair capacity, and it is this rather than pigment per se which results in the lower incidence skin cancer observed in darker skinned individuals. This evokes the notion that epidermal pigmentation may in fact be the mammalian equivalent of a bacterial SOS response. Skin colour is one of most conspicuous ways in which humans vary yet the function of melanin remains controversial. Greater understanding of the role of pigmentation in skin is vital if one is to be able to give accurate advice to the general public about both the population at risk of skin carcinogenesis and also public perceptions of a tan as being healthy.