The evolution of human skin colouration and its relevance to health in the modern world

J R Coll Physicians Edinb. 2012 Mar;42(1):58-63. doi: 10.4997/JRCPE.2012.114.


Functionally naked skin which comes in a range of colours is unique to the human species. This review summarises current evidence pertaining to the evolution of these attributes. The biggest changes in the integument occurred during the course of human evolution in equatorial Africa, under regimes of high daytime temperatures and high ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Loss of most functional body hair was accompanied by the evolution of an epidermis with a specialised stratum corneum and permanent, protective, eumelanin pigmentation. The main reason for the evolution of dark pigmentation was to protect against folate deficiency caused by elevated demands for folate in cell division, DNA repair, and melanogenesis stimulated by UVR. Dispersal out of tropical Africa created new challenges for human physiology especially because of lower and more seasonal levels of UVR and ultraviolet B (UVB) outside of the tropics. In these environments, the challenge of producing a vitamin D precursor in the skin from available UVB was met by natural selection acting on mutations capable of producing varying degrees of depigmentation. The range of pigmentation observed in modern humans today is, thus, the product of two opposing clines, one favoring photoprotection near the equator, the other favoring vitamin D photosynthesis nearer the poles. Recent migrations and changes in lifestyle in the last 500 years have brought many humans into UVR regimes different from those experienced by their ancestors and, accordingly, exposed them to new disease risks, including skin cancer and vitamin D deficiency.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Folic Acid Deficiency
  • Health*
  • Humans
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Skin Neoplasms
  • Skin Pigmentation*
  • Skin*
  • Sunlight
  • Ultraviolet Rays*
  • Vitamin D Deficiency