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Why it's so important to know your skin type this summer

Do you tan easily, or start to go pink as soon as you step out in the sun? The Fitzpatrick scale could help you better protect your skin this summer.

When we think about the type of skin we have, we might ponder words like 'dry', 'oily' or 'sensitive' to describe it. But according to dermatologist, Dr Anjali Mahto, we should also be thinking about our skin in a slightly different way, in order to better protect ourselves from the sun.

Mahto, author of The Skincare Bible and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation, points us to the Fitzpatrick scale. Developed in 1975 by American dermatologist, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and commonly used in modern day dermatology, the scale is a simple way of classifying different skin types.

"The Fitzpatrick scale allows dermatologists to make an assessment of skin cancer risk," explains Mahto. "But it's also useful for assessing the risk of premature skin ageing due to the sun, and for estimating the safe dose of UV light in patients receiving light therapy for conditions such as psoriasis."

Additionally, it helps guide laser therapies such as laser hair removal or scar treatments, and even cosmetic procedures such as clinical peels.

So why haven't more of us heard about it? Well, Mahto says that's probably because it's primarily a tool for dermatologists, not the general public. But becoming more familiar with the Fitzpatrick scale could be beneficial for all of us.

"And it's funny because I think for us in dermatology, the Fitzpatrick skin type is almost more important to us, than 'are you oily, or dry, or sensitive?'," she points out.

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How does the scale work?

The Fitzpatrick scale has six main skin types based on the colour of the skin and its reaction to sun exposure, Mahto explains.

Type 1: always burns, never tans - often has red or strawberry blonde hair, freckles and blue/green or pale-coloured eyes.
Type 2: usually burns and tans minimally - usually has fair skin and hair, and pale eyes.
Type 3: sometimes burns mildly but tans uniformly.
Type 4: burns minimally and tans easily - usually olive skin tones.
Type 5: rarely burns and tans profusely - usually dark hair and dark eyes.
Type 6: never burns and tans profusely.

However, these skin types are a guideline. Some people may not fit exactly into one category, Mahto reveals.

"It's not there to be a hard and fast rule. Some people might look fair but actually tan quite easily. It's really important to ask the question about what happens to your skin when you are out in the sun. It might look like you are a type 2 or 3 to me, but you might actually be a 4 because you tolerate the sun quite well."

What your skin type can tell you

Knowing your Fitzpatrick skin type can help you make better decisions about how to look after your skin in the sun. Multiple sunburns have been linked to the development of skin cancer.

"Those with type 1 to 3 skin are at higher risk of developing skin cancer than those with type 5 to 6 skin. The fairer skin types should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen which is minimum factor 30," advises Mahto.

What about those further up the scale? Does this mean those with darker skin can skimp on sun cream? Not necessarily. While it's true that those with darker skin types are less likely to develop skin cancer, there is actually a form that's more prevalent in those with type 5 to 6 skin.

"There is a type of skin cancer called acral lentiginous melanoma. But that type of melanoma is not driven by sun exposure. So wearing sunscreen is not going to reduce your mortality risk of that particular type of skin cancer," Mahto reveals.

However, wearing a regular sunscreen can reduce age-related skin changes for those of all skin types.

"Ultimately, people of all skin types can benefit from seeking shade, covering up and donning a sun hat and shades. And if you have any concerns about a new or changing mole, or non-healing sores on the skin, these are good reasons to get checked out," she concludes.

Article History

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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