The density of cutaneous melanin may be the property of the skin that protects it from damage by solar radiation, but there is not an accepted, noninvasive method of measuring it. To determine whether the density of cutaneous melanin can be estimated from reflectance of visible light by the skin, reflectance of 15-nm wavebands of light by the skin of the inner upper arm of each of 82 volunteers was measured at 20-nm intervals with a Minolta 508 spectrophotometer. A 3-mm skin biopsy was then taken from the same site, and four nonserial sections of it were stained with Masson Fontana for melanin. The melanin content of the basal area was calculated using the NIH Image analysis system. We show that cutaneous melanin in Caucasians can be estimated by the difference between two measurements of reflectance of visible light by the skin: those at wavelengths 400 and 420 nm. This new spectrophotometric measurement was more highly correlated (r = 0.68) with the histological measurements of cutaneous melanin than was skin reflectance of light of wavelength 680 nm (r = 0.33). Reflectances in the range of 650-700 nm have been used previously in skin cancer research. This relatively accurate measurement of melanin is quick and noninvasive and can be readily used in the field. It should provide improved discrimination of individual susceptibility to epidermal tumors in Caucasians and information about melanin's biological role in the causation of skin cancer.