The Fitzpatrick scale (also known as Fitzpatrick skin typing test or Fitzpatrick phototype 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.
The Fitzpatrick scale includes 6 different skin types and colors and their ability to tolerate sun.
Type 1: Pale white skin, red or blond hair, blue eyes, freckles | Always burns, never tans
Type II: White or fair skin, red or blond hair, blue, hazel or green eyes | Usually burns, tans with difficulty
Type III: Cream white or fair skin, any eye or hair color | Gradually tans, sometimes has a mild burn
Type IV: Light brown skin | Tans with ease, rarely burns
Type V: Dark brown skin | Tans very easily, very rarely burns
Type VI: Deeply pigmented, dark brown | Tans very easily, never burns
Practitioners also use the scale to determine how likely a person is to get skin cancer.
How to Use the Fitzpatrick Scale
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 should not be used as a substitute for visiting your dermatologist or primary health provider.
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.