Eye color: How it develops and why it changes

baby with blue eyes

Eye color often is the genetic trait that fascinates parents the most as a child develops. Will the child's eyes be black, brown, blue, gray, green, hazel or some combination of colors?

How a child looks depends on the genetic material each parent contributes to the child. But the parents' genes can mix and match in many different ways. The influences from each parent aren't known until — surprise — after the child is born!

How eye color develops

The colored part of the eye is called the iris, which has pigmentation that determines our eye color.

Human eye color originates with three genes, two of which are well understood. These genes account for the most common colors — green, brown, and blue. Other colors, such as gray, hazel and multiple combinations are not fully understood or explainable at this time.

At one time, brown eye color was considered "dominant" and blue eye color was considered a "recessive" trait. But modern science has shown that eye color is not at all that simple.

Eye colors isn't just a blend of the parents' eye colors, as in mixing paint. Each parent has two pairs of genes on each chromosome, and multiple possibilities exist for how this genetic information is expressed in terms of eye color.

And early in life, eye color can change.

Most non-Hispanic Caucasian babies are born with blue eyes that can darken in their first three years of life. Darkening occurs if melanin, a brown pigment usually not present at birth, develops with age.

Children can have completely different eye colors than either of their parents. But if both parents have brown eyes, it's most likely that their children also will have brown eyes.

The darker colors tend to dominate, so brown tends to win out over green, and green tends to win out over blue.

However, a scenario where one parent has brown eyes and the other has blue eyes doesn't automatically produce a brown-eyed child.

Some children are born with irises that don't match in color. Usually this condition — called heterochromia — is caused by faulty developmental pigment transport, local trauma either in the womb or shortly after birth or a benign genetic disorder.

Other causes can be inflammation, freckle (diffuse nevus) of the iris and Horner's syndrome.

If you notice an unusual appearance to you eye color, see an eye doctor near you for an evaluation.

Changes in eye color

The iris is a muscle that expands and contracts to control pupil size. The pupil enlarges in dimmer lighting and grows smaller in brighter lighting. The pupil also shrinks when you focus on near objects, such as a book you are reading.

When the pupil size changes, the pigments in the iris compress or spread apart, changing the eye color a bit.

Certain emotions also can change both pupil size and iris color. That's why some people say their eyes change colors when they're angry or loving.

Eye color also can change with age. This happens in 10 to 15 percent of the Caucasian population (people who generally have lighter eye colors).

For instance, my once very brown eyes are now hazel, a combination of brown and green. However, some hazel eyes actually get darker with age.

If your adult eye color changes pretty dramatically, or if one eye changes from brown to green or blue to brown, it's important to see your eye doctor.

Eye color changes can be a warning sign of certain diseases, such as Fuch's heterochromic iridocyclitis, Horner's syndrome or pigmentary glaucoma.

How to change your eye color

If you don't like the color of your eyes, you can always change it... with colored contact lenses.

But remember, even colored contact lenses are a prescription medical device and must be prescribed and monitored by an eye doctor.

Genes and Eye Color

Mother and son

What color will your baby's eyes be?

How eye color is inherited is far more complicated than what was once thought.

Generally, it's far more likely for two brown-eyed parents to have a blue-eyed child than for two blue-eyed parents to have a brown-eyed child. This is because the less dominant blue-eyed trait can be passed along by brown-eyed people until the genes for the lighter eye color happen to match up, possibly many generations later.

Two blue-eyed parents, on the other hand, are much less likely to have children with dark eyes. This is because the genetic trait for darker eyes is so dominant it would be highly unlikely that two blue-eyed individuals would both carry the trait to be expressed in their kids' eyes.

Still, due to the complexities of how genetic traits are passed along, it's not impossible for two blue-eyed parents to have a brown-eyed child.

Eyewear to enhance your eye color

If you wear eyeglasses, be sure to choose lenses with anti-reflective (AR) coating.

AR-coated lenses eliminate annoying reflections in your glasses that prevent others from seeing the beauty and expressiveness of your eyes. Ask your optician for details and a demonstration of anti-reflective lenses.

Also, read about how to choose eyeglass frames that highlight and enhance the color of your eyes and skin tone.

Page updated April 2019