How Rare Is Your Eye Color?

By Klaudia Pasternak

different eye colors

Ever caught a glimpse of your eyes in the mirror and wondered just how unique your eye color really is?

In this article, we’ll discover just how rare or common each eye color is and explore how ethnicity affects your chances of having certain eye colors. But first, let’s start with what actually determines the color of your eyes.

What determines your eye color?

Genetics and melanin are the two key ingredients that paint the unique color of your eyes. Think of genetics as the artist and melanin as the palette, working together to create everything from deep browns to vibrant blues and greens.

Without getting too technical on you, there are two key genes – OCA2 and HERC2 – that produce proteins which influence the type and quantity of melanin present in the iris – the colored part of the eye. 

Genetics can be quite intricate. For example, two blue-eyed parents will probably have a blue-eyed child, but it’s not guaranteed. This might be due to the recessive genes that the parents carry, which might not show in them but could be passed onto their child. 

blue eye image

Additionally, sometimes the interplay between genes can result in completely different eye colors which differ from the typical patterns which were seen in the family. 

Melanin is the pigment that gives color to your skin, hair, and eyes. When it comes to your eyes, melanin levels really alter the shade of your eyes

The amount and type of melanin in the iris and whether it’s present in the front layer, back layer, or both can determine whether your eyes will be blue, green, brown, or one of the rarer shades.

As a result, higher levels of melanin result in darker eye colors, like brown, while lower levels result in lighter colors, such as blue or green. (Sturm et al., 2008).

Most common eye colors

When you think of your friend group, you might notice that many of them have either brown or blue eyes. This isn’t surprising, considering that research indicates brown and blue eyes are the most common eye colors worldwide. This is then followed by hazel or green eyes.

However, let’s dive into the stats and see what percentages of people have these common eye colors and what makes up the most common eye shades. 

Brown eyes

Brown eyes take the crown as the most common eye color worldwide – seems like Mother Nature’s a fan of the classic, “one-size-fits-all” approach in her colorful genetic palette, showcasing a spectrum of shades from rich chocolate to warm chestnut.

Despite the misconception that babies often start with blue eyes, it’s actually quite common for newborns to have brown eyes. In fact, about 45% of people around the globe have this eye color, making it one of the most common shades. (Harris Poll survey, 2014).

Common eye shades

Blue eyes

Blue eyes come in as the runner-up for the most common eye color among us humans accounting for 27%. Surprisingly, blue eyes don’t actually contain any blue pigment — it’s all about the melanin levels and the scattering of light in the iris, which makes them appear blue.

This phenomenon is known as Rayleigh scattering, the same process that makes the sky look blue.

Blue eyes, having less melanin, are more at risk from UV rays, leaving them susceptible to conditions like age-related macular degeneration, ocular cancer, and cataracts. It’s because they’re like magnets for UV light, which can seriously damage your eyes.

So, while your blue eyes might sparkle in the sunlight, it’s crucial to protect them with shades. Plus, it’s the perfect excuse to wear sunglasses more often!

Green eyes

If you have green eyes, count yourself as lucky. This is because green eyes are the rarest eye color (of the more common colors, at least) with only 2% of the population having this eye shade. So, what makes up green eyes?

Green eyes are a captivating blend of light brown and yellowish pigmentation, known as lipochrome.

It’s this unique combination that, when combined with the scattering of light (Rayleigh scattering), gives the iris its mesmerizing green shade. That’s why green eyes can look so different depending on the weather and lighting.

When it comes to melanin levels, green eyes fall somewhere in between brown and blue.

They have less melanin than brown eyes but more than blue eyes, making them truly stand out. Perhaps it’s this distinctive mix that leads many to believe green is the most attractive eye color of all.

Hazel eyes

Hazel eyes come in a fascinating array of variations, each with its own unique charm. Typically, they boast a captivating yellow-brownish shade, adorned with flecks of gold, green, and brown swirling around the center like a miniature galaxy.

Despite their enchanting appearance, hazel eyes actually contain as much melanin as their brown-eyed counterparts.

However, there is a twist: the melanin in hazel eyes is distributed differently. Instead of being evenly spread across the iris, it tends to gather more around the outer edge, creating a captivating contrast.

Much like green eyes, hazel eyes owe their color to the Rayleigh scattering effect and a moderate amount of melanin in the iris.

This unique combination results in a kaleidoscope of colors, visible in the eyes of approximately 18% of Americans.

Most uncommon eye shades

Venturing into the rarer eye colors, there are a few unique colors, and combinations of colors, that make up this group. These shades include; gray, violet, red, and “black”. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Gray eyes

Gray eyes are one of the most uncommon eye shades. Often mistaken for blue eyes at first glance, gray eyes have their own unique charm, featuring intriguing spots of gold and brown scattered throughout the iris.

Much like with other light eye colors, their soft gray shade arises from a low melanin content in the iris and the interplay of light. But here’s where it gets interesting — gray eyes also boast an extra dose of collagen in a part of the eye called the stroma, adding to their distinctive gray appearance.

In simple terms, the stroma is the layer beneath the colored part of the eye, known as the iris, and collagen is a protein that provides structure and support.

While multiple sources suggest that roughly 3% of the global population has gray eyes, more research is needed to truly understand the prevalence of this eye color and distinguish it from others. But one thing’s for sure — gray eyes are rare and captivating. 

uncommon eye colors

Violet and red eyes

Violet and red eyes stand out as truly extraordinary eye colors, arising from an iris with minimal to no pigment. When light bounces off the blood vessels within these uniquely hued eyes, they cast a captivating violet glow making the eye appear violet or red.

These rare eye colors occur naturally, but they’re as elusive as they are beautiful.

But it’s not exactly a stroke of luck—these colors often arise from albinism, a genetic condition that alters the body’s ability to produce melanin, the pigment responsible for skin, hair, and eye color.

This condition can also lead to heightened sensitivity to light, making sunglasses essential for comfortable vision in bright environments.

Black eyes

Lastly, let’s mention one of the rarest eye shades: a very dark brown, which is often mistaken for black.

True black eyes don’t exist, but exceptionally dark brown eyes can appear almost black under certain lighting conditions. These eyes possess a unique intensity and depth, lacking visible pigmentation variations, lending them a hypnotic and enigmatic allure.

While quite rare, these deep, dark brown eyes have the power to captivate attention and make a lasting impression.

How ethnicity affects the rarity of eye color

Ethnicity plays a significant role in the rarity of eye colors, often influencing the prevalence of certain eye colors within specific populations.

For example, brown eyes or darker eyes in general are more commonly found among individuals of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent, where higher levels of melanin provide a protective advantage against UV radiation

Conversely, blue and green eyes, or lighter eyes in general, are pretty common among people of European descent, especially those from Northern and Eastern Europe.

You can blame it on the historically lower sunlight exposure in those regions, which meant less pressure for bodies to create super high melanin levels. This mix of eye colors among different ethnic groups adds to the whole tapestry of human looks worldwide, making us all wonderfully unique.

female model face

Your eye color is as diverse as you are

So, how rare is your eye color? Whether your eyes are a common darker shade such as brown, or an enchanting blue, or maybe rare gray, or green, each shade is a unique and fascinating part of who you are. 

Each eye color tells a story of genetic heritage, adaptation, and individual uniqueness. So next time you look in the mirror, appreciate the genetic masterpiece that is your eye color – it’s one of a kind!

Reference list

Sturm RA, Duffy DL, Zhao ZZ, Leite FP, Stark MS, Hayward NK, Martin NG, Montgomery GW (2008), A single SNP in an evolutionary conserved region within intron 86 of the HERC2 gene determines human blue-brown eye colour, Am J Hum Genet. PubMed.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18252222

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