Maybe you’ve never heard of it, but dermatologists use a classification system called the Fitzpatrick scale to evaluate a patient’s skin tone. It’s useful for assessing all kinds of skin concerns, from mysterious rashes to skin cancer risk. This is because while pale skin and dark skin respond in similar ways, that response can look very differently from person to person.
Here, we’re explaining everything you need to know about the Fitzpatrick scale.
3 minute read
Article Quick Links
- 01.What is the Fitzpatrick scale?
- 02.How to determine your Fitzpatrick skin type
- 03.When do dermatologists use the Fitzpatrick scale?
What is the Fitzpatrick scale?
Known as the “father of modern dermatology,” Harvard doctor Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, MD created the Fitzpatrick scale in the 1970s while conducting research on psoriasis exposed to UVA rays. He’d assumed that his blond, blue-eyed patients would get sunburned, but was surprised to see that some of his brown-eyed, dark-haired patients did, too.
Fitzpatrick realized that hair and eye color wasn’t the best determinant of a person’s UV sensitivity: so he developed a scale based on how a patient’s skin responded to radiation. Essentially, the Fitzpatrick scale is a measure of how likely a person is to burn vs. tan, and is a reflection of how much melanin is present in the skin. It’s a useful indicator of someone’s likelihood of developing skin cancer, as well.
How to determine your Fitzpatrick skin type
While initially there were four categories, the Fitzpatrick scale was expanded in subsequent years to a total of six. While the best way to determine your skin type with certainty is to consult with a dermatologist, it’s possible to get a fairly accurate idea on your own.
Here’s our guide to help you determine your Fitzpatrick skin type:
When do dermatologists use the Fitzpatrick scale?
As we mentioned earlier, understanding how a person’s Fitzpatrick skin type relates to certain skin conditions is an important part of evaluating a patient’s skin health. Generally speaking, the scale is useful for things like:
- Diagnosing a condition: inflammation, redness and rashes look different across skin tones
- Determining a treatment plan: certain peels and lasers work better on some skin types than others
- Assessing skin cancer risk: carcinoma and melanoma risks differ among skin types, but sunscreen is still essential for all types
Dr. Lee’s last word
We asked Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) what role the Fitzpatrick scale plays in her dermatology practice. She told us that while she definitely takes the skin tone into consideration, she doesn’t need to officially label it on the scale to treat a patient.
“When I was first starting out, I would try to categorize skin into a Fitzpatrick type,” she explains. “As I’ve gotten more experienced, I don’t necessarily think of it this way — I look at the skin color and ethnicity during my evaluation.”
Dr. Lee says that she typically uses the Fitzpatrick scale to “determine when a certain laser treatment or peel will respond without deleterious results, or not be at high risk for side effects.” She’ll document it in a patient’s chart, and it also comes in handy when describing a patient’s skin to other dermatologists.