The recurrent interaction of skin with sunlight is an intrinsic constituent of human life, and exhibits both beneficial and detrimental effects. The apparent robust architectural framework of skin conceals remarkable mechanisms that operate at the interface between the surface and environment. In this Review, we discuss three distinct protective mechanisms and response pathways that safeguard skin from deleterious effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The unique stratified epithelial architecture of human skin along with the antioxidant-response pathways constitutes the important defense mechanisms against UV radiation. The intricate pigmentary system and its intersection with the immune-system cytokine axis delicately balance tissue homeostasis. We discuss the relationship among these networks in the context of an unusual depigmenting disorder, vitiligo. The elaborate tunable mechanisms, elegant multilayered architecture and evolutionary selection pressures involved in skin and sunlight interaction makes this a compelling model to understand biological complexity.