Fitzpatrick skin typing is a way of classifying different types of skin. What does a person’s Fitzpatrick skin type tell us about their skin?
Making up nearly 16 percent of a person’s body mass, the skin is the body’s biggest organ. The sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage a person’s skin and may lead to signs of premature aging and skin cancer.
This article explores the Fitzpatrick skin typing system and also discusses how to protect each of the six different Fitzpatrick skin types from sun damage.
Also known as the Fitzpatrick skin phototype, the Fitzpatrick skin type system was developed in 1975. It remains a useful way to determine skin type and skin cancer risk.
This 2013 study found that Fitzpatrick skin typing was most effective when a dermatologist carried out the assessment. Self-reporting a skin type was found to be less accurate.
The Fitzpatrick skin types were determined by interviewing many people about how their skin reacted to the sun.
There were clear trends in the data researchers gathered, which allowed them to identify six different skin types. It is important to remember that as these groups are based on anecdotal evidence.
A person may find their skin does not fit completely into any one category. If self-assessing, Fitzpatrick skin typing should be used as a guide rather than a definitive skin type.
The six Fitzpatrick skin types and associated skin, hair, and eye color are explored in the sections below. These skin types are numbered according to how much melanin is present in the skin.
Skin with very little melanin has little protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. As such, it is likely to burn.
Melanin pigment is a dark brown pigment that occurs in a person’s hair, skin, and irises. It causes the skin to tan in response to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Skin high in melanin is likely to tan, rather than burn. When the skin burns, it increases the risk of skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 1 in 5 people in the United States will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.
Being able to classify a skin type according to how much melanin it contains helps predict how likely it is to burn.
If a person understands which Fitzpatrick skin type they have, they can make an informed choice about how to protect their skin.
Skin protection advice for each Fitzpatrick skin type is explored below.
Types 1 and 2
People with Fitzpatrick skin type 1 or 2 have a high risk of sun damage and signs of aging on the skin. They are also at risk of developing skin cancers, such as melanoma.
According to the American Cancer Society, fair skin, freckling, and light hair is a skin cancer risk factor. These characteristics align with skin types 1 and 2, meaning those with these skin types need to take extra precautions.
To protect their skin, a person with skin type 1 or 2 should:
- always wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above
- avoid sun exposure
- sit or walk in the shade when possible
- wear a wide-brimmed hat for protection
- wear sunglasses that block out harmful UV rays
- wear protective clothing if out in the sun for extended periods
These protective measures should reduce this risk of a person developing skin cancer and can help the skin stay looking younger for longer. However, it is still essential to check for any abnormalities.
A person with skin type 1 or 2 should do an all-over body check of their skin every month for any skin abnormalities.
Types 3 to 6
If a person has a skin type 3 to 6, they are still at risk of developing skin cancer. However, their risk is lower than for those with skin types 1 or 2.
It is still important for those with skin types 3 to 6 to use sunscreen regularly. To protect their skin, a person with skin type 3 to 6 should:
- monitor and limit sun exposure
- ïwear a wide-brimmed hat for protection
- wear sunglasses that block UV rays
- wear protective clothing if outside for extended periods
- wear sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or above
As with other skin types, a person with a skin type between 3 and 6 should still check their skin all over for abnormalities every month.
It is also important for those with darker skin types to look out for acral lentiginous melanoma. This is a dark spot on the skin, which may develop on the palms on a person’s hands or the soles of their feet.
All skin types
Using artificial tanning beds and machines is harmful to all skin types. This 2013 study suggests that if a person uses an artificial tanning bed before they reach the age of 35, they are 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma later in life.
For this reason, it is important to avoid artificial tanning beds regardless of skin type.
Things to talk to a doctor about include:
- new moles
- existing moles that are getting bigger
- the outline of a mole becoming blotched
- a spot changing color from brown to black
- a spot becoming raised or developing a lump in the middle
- the surface of a spot changing texture and becoming rough or ulcerated
- moles that are itchy or tingly
- moles that bleed or weep
- spots that look unlike any other spots
Fitzpatrick skin types are a useful way of assessing skin type in order to understand the best way to protect skin from the sun. Avoiding sun damage helps to reduce the risk of skin cancer.
It is always important to check for any early signs of skin cancer on a monthly basis, regardless of skin type. This is especially true for those who live south of the equator, where the sun is stronger and more damaging to the skin.
If a person has any concerns about skin cancer or has spotted an abnormality on their skin, they should speak to a doctor.