Epidemiologic research has demonstrated convincingly that certain pigmentary characteristics are associated with increased relative risks of melanoma; however there has been no comprehensive review to rank these characteristics in order of their importance on a population level. We conducted a systematic review of the literature and meta-analysis to quantify the contribution of pigmentary characteristics to melanoma, estimated by the population-attributable fraction (PAF). Eligible studies were those that permitted quantitative assessment of the association between histologically confirmed melanoma and hair colour, eye colour, skin phototype and presence of freckling; we identified 66 such studies using citation databases, followed by manual review of retrieved references. We calculated summary relative risks using weighted averages of the log RR, taking into account random effects, and used these to estimate the PAF. The pooled RRs for pigmentary characteristics were: 2.64 for red/red-blond, 2.0 for blond and 1.46 for light brown hair colour (vs. dark); 1.57 for blue/blue-grey and 1.51 for green/grey/hazel eye colour (vs. dark); 2.27, 1.99 and 1.35 for skin phototypes I, II and III respectively (vs. IV); and 1.99 for presence of freckling. The highest PAFs were observed for skin phototypes 1/II (0.27), presence of freckling (0.23), and blond hair colour (0.23). For eye colour, the PAF for blue/blue-grey eye colour was higher than for green/grey/hazel eye colour (0.18 vs. 0.13). The PAF of melanoma associated with red hair colour was 0.10. These estimates of melanoma burden attributable to pigmentary characteristics provide a basis for designing prevention strategies for melanoma.