Skin colour and vitamin D: An update

Exp Dermatol. 2020 Sep;29(9):864-875. doi: 10.1111/exd.14142. Epub 2020 Jul 17.


Homo sapiens evolved in East Africa and had dark skin, hair, and eyes, in order to protect against deleterious consequences of intensive UV radiation at equatorial latitudes. Intensive skin pigmentation was thought to bear the risk of inefficient vitamin D3 synthesis in the skin. This initiated the hypothesis that within the past 75 000 years, in which humans migrated to higher latitudes in Asia and Europe, the need for vitamin D3 synthesis served as an evolutionary driver for skin lightening. In this review, we summarize the recent archeogenomic reconstruction of population admixture in Europe and demonstrate that skin lightening happened as late as 5000 years ago through immigration of lighter pigmented populations from western Anatolia and the Russian steppe but not primarily via evolutionary pressure for vitamin D3 synthesis. We show that variations in genes encoding for proteins being responsible for the transport, metabolism and signalling of vitamin D provide alternative mechanisms of adaptation to a life in northern latitudes without suffering from consequences of vitamin D deficiency. This includes hypotheses explaining differences in the vitamin D status and response index of European populations.

Keywords: evolution; genetic variations; melanin synthesis; pigmentation; skin; vitamin D; vitamin D receptor; vitamin D response index; vitamin D status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cholecalciferol / biosynthesis*
  • Human Migration*
  • Humans
  • Melanins / biosynthesis
  • Phylogeography
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Skin Pigmentation / genetics*
  • White People / genetics*


  • Melanins
  • Cholecalciferol