The varying epidermal melanin content that produces racial pigmentation determines the number of photons that reach the lower (malpighian) cellular layers, where vitamin D3 synthesis takes place. We investigated the effect of racial pigmentation on vitamin D3 formation, stimulating the process with a fixed dose of UVB radiation (wavelengths, 290 to 320 nm). Vitamin D nutritional status was further assessed measuring serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D and the most active serum metabolite, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D. Experimental subjects were young (third decade of life) and healthy, representing the white, Oriental (East Asian), Indian (South Asian), and black races. Basal serum vitamin D3 levels were similar among groups, ranging from 2.3 +/- 0.6 nmol/L (mean +/- SEM) for blacks to 3.4 +/- 1.0 nmol/L for Indians. Following whole-body exposure to 27 mJ/cm2 of UVB, there was a significant racial group effect on serum vitamin D3 levels. Post-UVB levels were significantly higher in whites (31.4 +/- 4.4 nmol/L) than in Indians or blacks (12.8 +/- 2.9 and 9.1 +/- 2.1 nmol/L, respectively), while the levels in Orientals (27.8 +/- 4.4 nmol/L) differed significantly from those in blacks and Indians but not in whites. Race had only a marginal effect on serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D, with higher levels in whites than in blacks (69.9 +/- 12.7 vs 29.7 +/- 6.2 nmol/L). Serum 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D and vitamin D binding protein levels were similar in all groups. We conclude that while racial pigmentation has a photoprotective effect, it does not prevent the generation of normal levels of active vitamin D metabolites.