The Fitzpatrick Skin Type classification system is a means of determining risk for sunburn and some skin conditions. Developed in 1975 by Harvard University’s Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick, the Fitzpatrick Skin Type classification is used by dermatologists using laser and light therapy, as it can help highlight risks of poor reactions to treatment. Some critics consider the Fitzpatrick Skin Type tests to be subjective and inaccurate, due to only surface-level observation of skin tone and coloring.
There are six varieties of Fitzpatrick Skin Type, ranging from extremely pale skinned people who are highly subjective to burns, to extremely dark skinned people who may suffer serious discoloration from laser or light treatment, or other pigment altering therapies or conditions. To determine Fitzpatrick Skin Type, a variety of questions are asked about genetic history, physical attributes such as eye color, hair color, and freckling, and your personal observations of your skin’s reaction to sunlight.
Depending on the answers to the determination questions, most people fit into one of the six skin categories, usually labeled with roman numerals I-VI. Critics note that the results may be somewhat subjective, and can vary between different sources. The Fitzpatrick Skin Type system should be used as a guideline rather than a definitive analysis.
The test to determine skin type is used for a variety of medical and cosmetic applications, particularly in laser treatments. Those with a higher level of skin type such as V-VI are usually prone to an overactive production of melanin following laser skin or hair treatments. This can lead to permanent discoloration or scarring of the skin, and most experts agree that people with V-VI type skin should undertake any laser treatment with extreme caution.
On the other end of the scale, people with skin type I-II are usually pale and likely to experience severe sun damage from ultra-violet exposure. These skin types are believed to be highly susceptible to skin cancer, and patients are advised to take extreme care to use sunscreen and protect from harmful UV rays. Tanning in tanning beds is also not recommended for those with skin prone to burning, as it can give a concentrated dose of UV light to the skin, resulting in serious damage.
Before subjecting a patient a serious laser treatment, many dermatologists will perform a test treatment on a small patch of skin in addition to determining the Fitzpatrick Skin Type classification. If discoloration occurs, the doctor will usually recommend that you avoid the procedure. To protect your skin, be sure to ask dermatologists for these tests, and never accept treatment from a doctor who refuses to take safety precautions.
To help determine your skin type on your own, many websites offer complete questionnaires for the Fitzpatrick Skin Type method of classification. Photos are also available to give examples of the physical look associated with the different skin types. Home-determination is not a substitute for a doctor’s opinion, and you should consult a dermatologist to have your skin type professionally classified and explained to you.