The Fitzpatrick Scale and SPF
We should all be wearing SPF every day all year round. That’s because UV (ultraviolet) radiation is present every day – even in the winter – and can also penetrate glass. It’s well known that over-exposure to UV rays can cause all sorts of serious damage to your skin, from dullness to pigmentation to skin cancer. In fact, it’s estimated that sun exposure is responsible for 80-90% of extrinsic skin ageing. In other words, protecting your skin from the sun won’t just keep it healthy, it will help to prevent multiple signs of premature ageing, including dryness, wrinkles, sagging and dark spots. But with so much choice available, how does anyone choose the best SPF for their skin?
What is the Fitzpatrick Scale?
Developed back in 1975 by dermatologist Thomas B Fitzpatrick, the Fitzpatrick Scale is a widely used method of classifying the amount of pigment in a person’s skin, and its reaction to sun exposure (primarily how much/how quickly someone would tan or burn without wearing any SPF).
The Fitzpatrick Scale is used in many different ways. For example, it allows dermatologists to assess a patient’s skin cancer risk. It allows aestheticians to calculate safe doses of laser for hair removal or scar treatments. And it can be used to assess the risk of premature skin ageing from the sun.
How does the Fitzpatrick Scale work?
The Fitzpatrick Scale features six different skin types, all of which are based on skin colour, and how it reacts to sun exposure.
Type I: The palest shade, this type of skin always burns, and never tans. It also tends to freckle easily, and is often accompanied by red or blonde hair.
Type II: Also fair in colour, this skin type usually burns, usually freckles and tans minimally. It’s typically accompanied by blue, grey or green eyes.
Type III: This skin type tans uniformly, but sometimes burns mildly. Hazel or light brown eyes are typical.
Type IV: Usually an olive or light brown skin tone, this skin type tans easily and burns minimally. It’s generally accompanied by brown hair and brown eyes.
Type V: Typically dark brown in colour, this skin tone tans easily and rarely burns. Hair and eyes are typically dark brown too.
Type VI: This is the darkest skin colour. Deeply pigmented, its tans deeply, never burns and never freckles.
Some people may not fit exactly into one category, so think of these skin types as a useful guideline. For example, some skin types might look quite fair, yet tan quite easily. So it’s important to focus on what actually happens to your skin when it’s exposed to the sun, and not just on its appearance.
Why is the Fitzpatrick Scale important?
Identifying your Fitzpatrick skin type is important, because it helps you to make better decisions about how to take care of your skin, in and out of the sun. Obviously, skin types I-III are most at risk of developing skin cancer and visible signs of premature ageing. But it doesn’t mean that darker skin types can safely skimp on sun protection. Skin types IV-VI seldom burn, but are prone to hyperpigmentation, which SPF can help to prevent. In addition to sunscreen, all skin types can benefit from seeking shade and/or covering up when the sun is at its hottest.
However, It’s obvious that skin types I-III do need to be extra vigilant. High-factor, broad spectrum sun protection is a must – at least SPF30. These skin types are often thinner and more sensitive than types IV-VI, and are usually best suited to non-irritating formulas that incorporate added humectants/moisturisers, antioxidants, pollution shields and blue light defence. Look out for face-specific formulas, as they are more likely to include added active ingredients that address issues such as hydration and pigmentation.
How much sunscreen should I apply?
Regardless of their Fitzpatrick Scale skin type, most people don’t apply enough sunscreen. But applying SPF too thinly – or not frequently enough – significantly diminishes the protection it affords. Use at least two teaspoons for your face, neck and lower arms – and at least two tablespoons for the rest of your body. Always remember how well your skin is protected depends not just on the SPF, but how well you apply it. If in doubt, be generous! And always allow your sunscreen to fully absorb/dry down before sun exposure (15 minutes is generally recommended)
Reapplication is also crucial. In general, you should reapply sunscreen at least every two hours for consistent protection – especially if your Fitzpatrick Scale skin type is I-III. Reapply more often if you’re exercising outdoors, sweating or swimming.
What is the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens?
In simple terms, physical filters protect the skin physically with a layer or barrier, so UV rays find it harder to penetrate the skin and cause damage. Conversely, chemical filters absorb UVA and UVB rays, so that your skin cells don’t have to. Each type has different advantages and disadvantages.
Physical (also known as mineral) sunscreens are generally regarded as being more suitable for red, irritated or sensitive skin. They tend to be thicker and fast-acting, but the minerals most commonly used – zinc oxide and titanium oxide – can leave an ashy/chalky residue on the skin, which may not be suitable for Fitzpatrick Scale types IV-VI.
Chemical sunscreens sink into the skin and absorb the sun’s rays before they penetrate and cause damage. They are often lighter than physical formulations, but because they turn energy into heat, they can irritate post-procedure or very sensitive skin.