Know Your Number

With May being National Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, let’s talk about skin color and protection. First and foremost, everybody needs to wear sunscreen every day. It doesn’t matter how dark your skin tone is or whether it’s cloudy and rainy out, sunscreen is the first line of defense against photo aging and good skin health. I can’t tell you how many people come into the clinic and when asked if they wear sunscreen daily their reply is, “I don’t go out in the sun.” Sun damage is cumulative and everybody reacts to it differently. Incidental exposure over a year’s time actually equals laying in the sun for 2 weeks without protection!

To help identify how a person might react to UV exposure and skin care treatments, many practitioners implement the Fitzpatrick Classification Scale into consultations. The Fitzpatrick Scale was developed by Harvard Medical School doctor Thomas Fitzpatrick in 1975 to help determine how prone to sunburn a patient is through analysis of eye color, hair color, amount of freckles a person has, natural skin color, and how a person’s skin reacts when in the sun. (Burris, 2008) A series of questions are asked in a quiz about these genetic attributes and each answer has a certain amount of points associated with it. The total amount of points correlates to one of the six categories on the Fitzpatrick scale ranging from very fair (I) to very dark (VI). It’s not an exact science but it does prove to be very helpful in patient treatment.
People with lower Fitzpatrick numbers (I-III) typically have fairer complexions and are much more prone to burning with high susceptibility to skin damage and cancers. Even though higher Fitzpatricks (IV-VI) don’t burn as readily as their fair counterparts, they’re still at risk for photo damage and skin cancer.

It’s pretty cool that skin tones have evolved through time depending on where in the world someone is from. People who are from areas closer to the equator are usually darker and have a natural ability to withstand more UV exposure. People farther away from the equator – think Scandinavia – have less natural ability to tolerate a lot of UV exposure. (Burris, 2008) Just because a person might have darker skin doesn’t mean that they don’t need to wear sunscreen, though. (Skin Cancer Foundation, 2016) You can take a quiz at Where Does Your Skin Fit In? Quiz – to find out your own Fitzpatrick number.

Remember that a tan is your body’s way of protecting itself against more damage. Over time, even those quick trips across a parking lot to get to the grocery store or cruising with the sunroof open cause cellular harm. At our office we recommend everyone wear a daily broad spectrum mineral- based sunscreen like Elta MD UV Clear regardless of your Fitzpatrick number. Find a product that works for your skin type and wear it consistently!

Burris, J. (2008, August 14). Burn Notice: Take the Fitzpatrick Skin Type quiz to help determing how vulnerable you are to cancer. McClatchy-Tribune Business News .
Skin Cancer Foundation. (2016, April 29). Retrieved May 6, 2016, from