The Fitzpatrick Scale

The Fitzpatrick Scale

What is the Fitzpatrick Scale?

When researching aesthetic medicine and especially aesthetic skin lasers, you’ve likely heard the term, “The Fitzpatrick Scale“. This scale is used by dermatologists and aesthetic medicine practitioners to determine which treatments are best suited for different skin types.

In short, the Fitzpatrick is a numerical scale that measures the amount of melanin in the skin after exposure to the sun.

The scale was developed to measure how skin reacts to ultraviolet light, or sun exposure. This is imperative knowledge for aesthetic doctors and laser technicians to know before administering a laser.

Who Created the Fitzpatrick Scale?

Thomas Fitzpatrick of the Fitzpatrick Scale of skin pigment

Thomas Fitzpatrick held the chairman’s position at Harvard Medical School and was the Chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital Dermatology Service. Today he is hailed as, the father of modern academic dermatology.

His focus was largely the study of malignant melanoma and together with a few other dermatologists determined how to identify potential malignant spots on the skin. He was fascinated with sun burns and the effect the sun had on the skin, specifically in causing melanoma. Much of this research is still being used today. However, Fitzpatrick is even more recognized for the creation of the, you guessed it, Fitzpatrick scale.


Characteristics of Skin Types

Fitzpatrick Scale skin pigmentation skin color
  • Type 1 – typically has light, ivory skin but when exposed to the sun always burns and peels but never tans.
  • Type 2 – has a light, fair complexion and burns quickly when exposed to the sun and rarely tans.
  • Type 3 – usually has a beige tint to the skin and may burn when exposed to the sun, but is capable of tanning.
  • Type 4 – this is a person with an olive skin or light brown tone and will not freckle when exposed to the sun. This person rarely gets a sun burn and tans regularly.
  • Type 5 – is a dark brown or black skin tone, rarely gets a sun burn and always tans under sun exposure.
  • Type 6 – is black and is the darkest skin tone. This person never burns and tans quickly when exposed to the sun.
The Fitzpatrick Scale is often misinterpreted as a way to measure a person’s skin color, however, the true definition includes the skin’s reactivity to the sun when exposed. For example, a person may have an olive toned skin in the winter, but can tan quickly in the summer. They may appear to be a type 3 in the winter but a type 4 in the summer (after sun exposure). This person would then be classified as a type 4 because of their skin’s reaction to the sun.

Why is the Fitzpatrick Scale Important?

This helpful scale is being used by dermatologists to gauge certain skin’s reaction to the sun and how to more quickly identify potentially malignant sun spots. However, laser techs and aesthetic doctors are also using the scale to determine the effectiveness of laser treatments on different skin types. Skin lasers have a multitude of settings or modalities that need to be perfected to match the skin type. Depending on how the skin reacts to laser light will determine these settings. In some circumstances, targeted spots in the skin can actually be darkened, rather than lightened or eliminated. This is especially important in laser hair removal and photofacial treatments, among others.

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