"Skin color" and "skin tone" sometime seem to be used interchangeably and sometimes not. Do they mean the same thing, i.e., do they both mean literally color (= % of magenta vs yellow etc.) PLUS how light or dark the skin is? Or are they two different things, i.e. skin color the magenta/yellow, etc. blend and skin tone how light or dark?


2 Answers 2


In general, these mean the same thing, but there important differences in usage in practice. For a general definition of tone in a photographic context, see What does "Tone" mean? — and just to save clicking, note that it has two common uses:

  • the overall lightness or darkness of an area of an image
  • the color of all or part of the image, usually in relation to its warmth or coolness

So, from one point of view, particularly when used in speaking about photographs, one simply might mean that. But skin color in humans has huge cultural and historical significance, and in particular the word "color" has implications of race (and often with color words used to describe ethnicity without actual consideration of literal color). It's therefore very common to use "skin tone" as a desired-to-be-less-loaded way to talk about literal skin color.

Particularly, "skin tone" is widely used in the cosmetics industry, which in general just wants to sell huge amounts of product to all people without getting into politics. In fact, a Google search for "skin color" returns results about genetics, race, and culture; while "skin tone" gives pages and pages and pages of results about makeup. And if you add "photography" to those searches, for "color" you predominantly get articles about the science and politics of race as related to photography (like this one about how metering is designed for caucasian skin), while "tone" is mostly stuff like using Lightroom's color curves.

So, while it might be tempting in the abstract to use "skin tone" to mean lightness or darkness and "skin color" to mean hue or chromaticity, in practical use that's unlikely to be clearly understood.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In practice there is no longer any standardized usage of either term, both in English usage in general and specifically in a photographic context. This is particularly the case in an age in which the vast majority of photographers have not studied the history of the discipline so that the same words are used in the same way as has historically been the case. Not only in photography but also in general we seem to have reached a point in linguistics where a word can mean "whatever I want it to mean, and if you tell me it doesn't mean that whenever I use it, you're just a hater." \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Sep 8, 2018 at 18:11

This is not a question about photography, it's about English language, but still, I'll have a go at it.

In common use, term "skin color" refers to race. Skin colors are "white" and "black", for example, despite no human actually having white or black skin. Skin tone refers to actual colors of human skin and goes from extra pale Scandinavians, to very dark skinned Africans, and would be described in terms like "beige", "chestnut" etc. trying to convey genuine color instead of nonsense like "white" and "black".

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sometimes, English-language words and terms have domain-specific meaning or senses which differ from the general use. Questions about those terms are on topic here, so there is no need to prefix your answer with a disclaimer. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Sep 8, 2018 at 17:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi Davor, welcome to Photo.SE. Adding to @mattdm's comment, I believe the question can fairly be read as "In photographic contexts, 'skin color' and 'skin tone' sometime seem...". With that reading in mind, I don't really think your answer addresses the context of the question (i.e., you specifically frame the context of your answer with "In common use...", which does not necessarily map 1:1 to photographic use). \$\endgroup\$
    – scottbb
    Sep 9, 2018 at 0:22

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