- The Fitzpatrick skin type scale classifies your skin based on its color to estimate its response to sun exposure.
- Knowing your Fitzpatrick skin type can help you discern the best way to protect your skin from sun damage and lessen the risk of skin cancer.
- Fitzpatrick skin types 1–3 should be more cautious when exposing their skin to the sun and should take more protective measures.
- Types 4–6 can be less cautious about sun exposure, but should still protect their skin from the sun whenever possible.
- All Fitzpatrick skin types should check their skin regularly for abnormalities which might indicate skin cancer.
The Fitzpatrick skin type scale classifies skin by its color to estimate its response to sun exposure. It is important to know your Fitzpatrick skin type because this allows you to protect your skin from sun damage in the most effective manner, greatly reducing the risk of skin cancer.
As the scale progresses from type 1 upwards, each subsequent type is darker in skin tone and more tolerant of sun exposure. People closer to type 1, therefore, should be more cautious about exposing their skin to the sun, and should take more protective measures.
All Fitzpatrick skin types should take measures to protect themselves from sun exposure, and should regularly check their skin for any abnormalities which might indicate skin cancer.
What Is the Fitzpatrick Scale?
The Fitzpatrick scale classifies skin based on its color to estimate its response to sun exposure. When first developed, the scale was applicable only to persons with white skin, but it has since been expanded to include darker skin tones.
There are six categories of skin type in the scale and each is likely to react differently to sunlight. The closer your skin is to type I the less tolerant it is to sunlight; the closer your skin is to type VI the more tolerant it is to sunlight.
The scale was developed from patients’ self-reports regarding their reaction to sun exposure, so it is largely subjective. Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick skin types are still usually accurate and useful diagnostically and therapeutically. There is evidence, however, that other methods of measuring skin color might be more accurate predictors of skin cancer than the Fitzpatrick phototypes.
Why it matters
Knowing your Fitzpatrick skin type lets you know how sun exposure is likely to affect you and how to best protect your skin against it.
When we are exposed to the sun we are being exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This exposure is beneficial because it helps our bodies produce vitamin D, but it also carries the risk of causing sun damage.
Overexposure to UV radiation can cause skin cancer. Of all the potential causes of skin cancer, exposure to UV radiation is the most important. Other risks of sun exposure include inflammation, sunburn, uneven skin tone, skin aging and thickening of the outer layers of skin.
How UV radiation affects you depends on the melanin in your skin – the pigment which makes your skin the color it is. Melanin acts as a shield for your cells and absorbs UV rays.
Your Fitzpatrick skin type relates directly to the melanin in your skin. This is why it is beneficial to know what yours is, because it tells you how your skin will react to the sun. You can then identify which steps you should take to avoid sun damage.
Knowing your Fitzpatrick skin type can also help you avoid products and treatments that might be ill-matched to your skin type.
Fitzpatrick skin type tests
The Fitzpatrick scale was first developed to determine the correct dose of Ultraviolet A (UVA) for Psoralen and Ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy. Since then, it has been expanded and improved upon.
You can see what your Fitzpatrick skin type is likely to be by comparing your own characteristics to descriptions of each Fitzpatrick skin type. However, this method is less accurate than taking a skin type test.
Fitzpatrick skin type tests ask you about your physical appearance – things such as your eye color, hair color, freckles and skin tone – and about how your skin reacts to sun exposure. These tests can be administered by yourself or by a dermatologist.
Taking a test is more accurate when determined by a dermatologist than when it is self-administered. Tests are also more accurate at predicting sun sensitivity and irritation than at predicting tanning.
A dermatologist can also identify your Fitzpatrick skin type by using a spectrophotometer, an instrument which reflects a light beam off your skin and measures the intensity of the light which returns. Using a spectrophotometer to determine your skin type is quick, noninvasive, precise and accurate. However, it is expensive and may not be offered at all clinics.
Which Fitzpatrick Skin Type Are You?
While Fitzpatrick skin type tests are more accurate, you can compare your own characteristics to the following descriptions to get an idea of what your type might be.
Fitzpatrick skin type 1
This skin type is the most sensitive to UV radiation and is the lightest skin tone – a pale white. Persons of this skin type have light blond or red hair, freckles, and light blue, gray or green eyes. This skin type is most at risk of sun damage and skin cancer.
Fitzpatrick skin type 2
This skin type is still sensitive to UV radiation and has fair skin which is not quite as pale as type 1. Persons of this skin type have red or blond hair and blue, gray, green or hazel eyes. This skin type is very susceptible to sun damage and risks skin cancer from unprotected sun exposure.
Fitzpatrick skin type 3
This skin type is moderately sensitive to UV radiation and its skin tone is somewhere between creamy white and olive. Persons of this skin type have hazel or brown eyes and dark blond or brown hair. They may suffer sun damage and be at risk of skin cancer if repeatedly exposed to the sun while unprotected.
Fitzpatrick skin type 4
This skin type is only mildly sensitive to UV radiation and its skin tone is olive or light brown. Persons of this skin type have dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. While not likely to suffer sun damage as often, they are still at risk of skin cancer and should protect their skin from the sun.
Fitzpatrick skin type 5
This skin type is not very sensitive to UV radiation and its skin tone is brown or dark brown. Persons of this skin type have dark brown eyes and dark brown or black hair. They are unlikely to suffer sun damage, but are still at risk of skin cancer and should protect themselves from the sun.
Fitzpatrick skin type 6
This skin type is minimally sensitive to UV radiation and its skin tone is very dark brown or black. Persons of this skin type have dark brownish black eyes and black hair. They almost never suffer sun damage, but are still at risk of skin cancer and should protect their skin from the sun.
Fitzpatrick skin type chart
This image acts as a rough guide for the skin tone of each Fitzpatrick skin type.
The following chart can be used to quickly identify your Fitzpatrick skin type.
|Skin type||Typical features||Reaction to sun|
|1||Pale white skin; light blue, gray or green eyes; red or blond hair; freckles||Always burns; never tans|
|2||Fair skin; blue, gray, green or hazel eyes; red or blond hair||Burns easily; tans with difficulty|
|3||Creamy white to light olive skin; hazel or brown eyes; dark blond or brown hair||Sometimes burns mildly; tans gradually to olive|
|4||Olive or light brown skin; dark brown eyes; dark brown hair||Rarely burns; tans with ease|
|5||Brown or dark brown skin; dark brown eyes; dark brown or black hair||Very rarely burns; tans very easily|
|6||Very dark brown or black skin; dark brownish black eyes; black hair||Never burns; tans very easily|
How to Protect Your Skin
Regular application of the correct sunscreen is one of the best preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of sun damage. Further ways to protect yourself from sun damage include limiting your time in the sun, staying in the shade and wearing protective clothing.
Your Fitzpatrick skin type affects how you are likely to react to certain products and treatments.
Protection for Fitzpatrick types 1–3
These skin types are much more sensitive to UV radiation than types 4–6. Because of this, more protection is needed.
Skin types 1 and 2 are more susceptible to sun damage than type 3, but type 3 is still more at risk when compared to the rest.
To properly protect yourself you should:
- Apply a stronger sunscreen of SPF 30 or above 15–30 minutes before going into the sun and reapply it at least every 2 hours
- Limit your time in the sun, especially around the middle of the day
- Stay in the shade whenever possible
- Wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible
- Wear a wide-brim hat to protect your head and shoulders
- Wear UV blocking sunglasses
- Regularly check your skin for any abnormalities
Fitzpatrick skin types 1–3 are less likely to suffer skin complications than types 4–6 when undertaking microdermabrasion and when using chemical peels, and they are less likely to experience negative side-effects from laser hair removal. They are also better equipped to deal with topical bleaching agents, as the skin usually returns to normal when the product has stopped being used. These are relatively safe products and procedures for these skin types.
Protection for Fitzpatrick types 4–6
These skin types are much less sensitive to UV radiation than types 1–3, but preventative measures should still be taken to protect them from sun damage. Although they have more melanin to protect from UV radiation, it is still possible to get sun damage and develop skin cancer from sun exposure.
To properly protect yourself you should:
- Apply sunscreen of SPF 15 or above 15–30 minutes before going into the sun
- Limit your time in the sun as much as possible
- Wear protective clothing and protective sunglasses when you will be in the sun for extended periods
- Regularly check you skin for abnormalities
Fitzpatrick skin types 4–6 are at higher risk of pigmentary (skin color) changes when undertaking microdermabrasion and when using chemical peels, and they are more likely to experience negative side-effects from laser hair removal. They are also more likely to suffer from dryness, irritation and hyperpigmentation – where darkened patches appear on the skin – as a result of using topical bleaching agents. If you are one of these skin types and are considering undertaking these procedures or using these products you should first discuss it with a dermatologist.
When to See a Dermatologist
You should see a dermatologist or doctor when you notice potential signs of skin cancer.
The first sign of non-melanoma skin cancer is usually a lump or discolored patch on the skin that persists over weeks or months.
It is important to regularly check your skin for any abnormalities. If they persist for more than four weeks you should see your dermatologist or doctor. Such abnormalities might include:
- New moles
- An increase in the size, shape, color or elevation of already existing moles
- Moles that itch and become irritated
- Moles that bleed
- Patches of the skin appearing darker
- Spots which become raised, lumpy, rough or ulcerated
- Red, firm lumps which might have turned into an ulcer
- Flat and scaly patches
Treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer is usually successful, and can be treated through surgery, freezing, anti-cancer creams, radiotherapy and light therapy.
A word about melanoma
Malignant melanoma skin cancer is less common than non-melanoma cancers, but it is much more aggressive and prone to spread to other parts of the body. It can be fatal and it is important to identify and treat it early.
The most common signs of melanoma are:
- The appearance of a new mole
- The change of an existing mole in size, shape, color or elevation
- Itchiness, irritation and bleeding of a mole
If you notice any of these abnormalities you should contact your doctor or dermatologist, who will be able to test whether the affected skin is cancerous. Melanoma is usually treated with surgery, and if it is caught early treatment is usually successful.
The Fitzpatrick skin type scale classifies skin by its color to estimate its response to sun exposure. The closer you are to skin type 1 – a pale skin tone – the less tolerant your skin will be to sunlight. The closer you are to skin type 6 – a dark skin tone – the more tolerant it will be.
While you should protect yourself from the sun regardless of your skin type, if you are Fitzpatrick skin type 1, 2 or 3, you should be more cautious about being exposed to direct sunlight. You should use a higher SPF sunscreen, cover up your skin and avoid the sun whenever possible.
If you are type 4, 5 or 6, you should still protect your skin from the sun, but can be less cautious. However, you should take more care when considering treatments and products like chemical peels, microdermabrasion, topical bleaching agents and laser hair removal.
Everyone, regardless of skin type, should check their skin regularly for any abnormalities which might indicate skin cancer.
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