What Is the Fitzpatrick Classification Scale?

How much sunlight can your skin take?

Shielding From Sunburn. Credit: BSIP / Contributor / Getty Images

What is the Fitzpatrick classification scale? With this review, discover how this scale helps the public know how much sun they should be exposed to based on skin type.

How the Fitzpatrick Classification Scale Helps the Public

The Fitzpatrick classification scale was developed in 1975 by Harvard Medical School dermatologist, Thomas Fitzpatrick, M.D., PhD. This scale classifies a person's complexion and their tolerance of sunlight.

It is used by many practitioners to determine how a patient will respond to or react to facial treatments. Practitioners also use the scale to determine how likely patients are to get skin cancer.

Where Do You Fit on the Fitzpatrick Classification Scale?

The Fitzpatrick classification scale includes six different skin types and colors. Find out where you belong on the scale.

Skin Type or Skin ColorCharacteristics
IWhite; very fair; red or blond hair; blue eyes; frecklesAlways burns, never tans
IIWhite; fair; red or blond hair; blue, hazel, or green eyesUsually burns, tans with difficulty
IIICream white; fair with any eye or hair color; very commonSometimes mild burn, gradually tans
IVBrown; typical Mediterranean caucasian skinRarely burns, tans with ease
VDark Brown; mid-eastern skin typesVery rarely burns, tans very easily
VIBlack Never burns, tans very easily 

How to Use the Scale Responsibly 

The scale provides a reference point that the public can consult to get an idea of how much sun exposure they can handle, but it shouldn't be used as a substitute for visiting a dermatologist or another health care provider.

The scale is also somewhat general, lumping in skin tones into broad categories. 

It notes, for example, that black skin never burns, but on occasion it does. Moreover, even people with the darkest skin tones need to exercise care in the sun. People of color can and do develop skin cancer.

While fairer skinned people are more likely to develop skin cancer than any other group, people of all skin tones need to use sunscreen.

Due to public misconceptions, people with darker skin tones, such as blacks, Latinos, Arabs and South Asians may think it's okay to skip sun block. They may not have as great of a risk of developing skin cancer as whites do, but they're not immune.

In fact, people of color are at risk of developing a form of skin color that is not caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays. The late reggae musician Bob Marley actually died in 1981 at the age of 36 from this rare form of skin cancer. It is called acral lentiginous melanoma and is genetically different from other forms of skin cancer. It grows on hairless parts of the skin, such as the skin under finger- and toenails and the palms of hands and soles of feet.  

Early Detections Is Key

No matter your race or ethnicity, it's important to pay attention to any changes you see in your skin. If you develop any worrisome moles, spots, sores or other changes, don't hesitate to contact your physician. While exposure to sunlight has health benefits, such as allowing the body to produce Vitamin D, it also comes with serious risks. 

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