What Is the Fitzpatrick Scale?

Classifying How Much Sun Your Skin Can Take

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

The Fitzpatrick scale (also known as Fitzpatrick skin typing test or Fitzpatrick phototyping scale) was developed in 1975 by Harvard Medical School dermatologist Thomas Fitzpatrick to classify a person's complexion in relation to their tolerance to sunlight. It is today used by many health professions to determine how a patient will respond to facial treatments.

Practitioners also use the scale to determine how likely a person is to get skin cancer.

Where Do You Fit on the Fitzpatrick Scale?

The Fitzpatrick scale includes six different skin types and colors in respect to their toleration to the sun:

Type FeaturesCharacteristics
Ipale white skin | red or blond hair | blue eyes | frecklesalways burns, never tans
IIwhite or fair skin | red or blond hair | blue, hazel, or green eyesusually burns, tans with difficulty
IIIcream white or fair skin | any eye or hair color gradually tans, sometimes has a mild burn,
IVlight brown skintans with ease, rarely burns
Vdark brown skintans very easily, very rarely burns
VIdeeply pigmented dark browntans very easily, never burns

How to Use the Scale Responsibly 

The scale provides a reference point that people can use to get a better idea as to how much sun exposure they can handle. It is meant to provide general, rather than individualized, guidance and shouldn't be used as a substitute for visiting your dermatologist or primary health provider.

 

In the end, there are no hard or fast rules when it comes to the "right" amount of sun exposure a person should have. While the scale suggests, for instance, that black skin never burns, we know that it occasionally does. The simple truth is that even the darkest skin tones are susceptible to sun damage and that skin cancers do occur in people of color.

While fair-skinned people are certainly more likely to develop malignancies, people of all colors are advised to use sunscreen, ideally on a daily basis. It is simply wrong to suggest that persons with darker skin, whether African-American, Latino, Middle Eastern, or Asians, don't need it. 

In fact, people of color are at risk of a certain type of cancer called acral lentiginous melanoma, which is not directly caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure. (It was the type that killed reggae star Bob Marley back in 1981.)

Acral melanoma is genetically different from other forms of skin cancer and appears primarily on hairless parts of the body such as the palms, soles of the feet, and under fingernails and toenails. While excessive UV exposure may not trigger the malignancy (given that these parts of the body are less exposed to sunlight), it can exacerbate it.

A Word From Verywell

No matter what your race or ethnicity, it's important to pay attention to any changes you see in your skin. If you find any worrisome mole, blemish, spot, sore, or other skin concerning change, don't hesitate to contact your doctor immediately. 

While sunlight definitely has its share of positive health benefits (such as allowing the body to produce Vitamin D), excessive exposure can often do more harm than good.

Keep covered or in the shade as much as possible, and use sunblock as part of your daily skin care routine.

Sources:

Fitzpatrick, T.  "The validity and practicality of sun-reactive skin types I through VI." Archives of Dermatology. 1988;124(6): 869-871.

Liu, L.; Zhang, W.; Gao, T.; and Li, C. "Is UV an etiological factor of acral melanoma ?"  Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. November/December 2016; 29:539-545.

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