Carotenoid and melanin pigment coloration affect perceived human health

Ian David Stephen, Vinet Coetzee, David Ian Perrett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Citations (Scopus)


The links between appearance and health influence human social interactions and are medically important, yet the facial cues influencing health judgments are unclear, and few studies describe connections to actual health. Increased facial skin yellowness (CIELab b*) and lightness (L*) appear healthy in Caucasian faces, but it is unclear why. Skin yellowness is primarily affected by melanin and carotenoid pigments. Melanin (dark and yellow) enhances photoprotection and may be involved in immune defense, but may contribute to vitamin D deficiency. Carotenoids (yellow) signal health in bird and fish species, and are associated with improved immune defense, photoprotection and reproductive health in humans. We present three studies investigating the contribution of carotenoid and melanin to skin color and the healthy appearance of human faces. Study 1 demonstrates similar perceptual preferences for increased skin L* and b* in UK-based Caucasian and black South African populations. Study 2 shows that individuals with higher dietary intakes of carotenoids and fruit and vegetables have increased skin b* values and show skin reflectance spectra consistent with enhanced carotenoid absorption. Study 3 shows that, to maximize apparent facial health, participants choose to increase empirically derived skin carotenoid coloration more than melanin coloration in the skin portions of color-calibrated face photographs. Together our studies link skin carotenoid coloration to both perceived health and healthy diet, establishing carotenoid coloration as a valid cue to human health which is perceptible in a way that is relevant to mate choice, as it is in bird and fish species.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)216–227
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number3
Early online date23 Dec 2010
Publication statusPublished - May 2011


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