How to Determine Your Skin Tone

Fair skinned woman.
Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Fair-skinned people have less melanin in their skin than those who have dark skin. See more pictures of beautiful skin.
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Our skin is our biggest organ, and it comes in many different colors. These different colors, referred to as skin tones, are determined by our outer layer's supply of a pigment called melanin. People with darker skin have more melanin than people with pale skin [source: National Geographic]. To understand why there are so many different skin colors, it's important to understand how melanin works.

Melanin serves as your body's defense against ultraviolet rays, more commonly referred to as UV rays. These rays are incredibly damaging and can ultimately cause skin cancer if you don't protect yourself. That's where melanin comes in. You know that your skin changes color when you stay in the sun too long. When UV rays start penetrating our bodies, skin cells called melanocytes kick into high gear and start producing melanin, which results in a tan. People with fair skin, however, tend to burn, because they have fewer melanocytes and, thus, produce less melanin. Extreme burns can lead to all kinds of unpleasantness, including infections and shock.


Some people just naturally have more melanin in their skin. They remain dark even in the absence of UV rays, and they don't burn as easily when they go out in the sun. Those whose families hail from Africa or India, for example, tend to have darker skin than European natives. Researchers believe this is the result of evolution: If you have dark skin, it's likely your ancestors once lived in tropical regions, where they were constantly bombarded with UV rays. Fair skin indicates you're a descendant of people who lived much farther from the equator.

Knowing your skin tone is important. Not only will you be able to better protect yourself from the sun's harmful rays and receive more accurate treatment for certain skin conditions, but you'll also be able to match clothing and hair color to better suit your body's biggest organ. It's not difficult to determine.

The simple distinction when referring to skin tone is warm or cool. To determine yours, simply look at your arm. What color are your veins? If they're blue, then you're a cool skin tone. If they're green, you've got yellow undertones, making you a warm skin tone. But, as you've probably noticed when make-up shopping or reading a fashion magazine, the descriptions and distinctions often go much deeper [source: CBS].

Read on to find out more about skin tones and where you fall on the spectrum.


Skin Types

While you can often look at your skin and give a general description of its color, you may not be able to communicate that in a way others would understand. For a long time, scientist's struggled to come up with a universal scale to describe the color of a person's skin. One of the first men who attempted to do so was German anthropologist Felix von Luschan. He created the Von Luschan chromatic scale in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, his 36-tone scale eventually proved inexact and complicated. This system was abandoned during the 1950s, and people were left once again to ponder the significance of their skin tones [source: Jewish Museum].

It wasn't long before Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, a Harvard-educated doctor, stepped up to the challenge. He designed the Fitzpatrick scale based on both a person's complexion and the way their skin reacts to sun exposure, specifically ultraviolet rays. This system of classification has become widely accepted, especially as a guideline for determining skin's susceptibility to the sun and other skin ailments. According to Fitzpatrick, skin tones fall into one of six major categories, or types. They are, in general, light, fair, medium, olive, brown and black. Light corresponds with type I on Fitzpatrick's scale while black corresponds with type VI [source: Commonwealth of Virginia].


When it comes to determining your skin tone, simply ask yourself three questions:

  • What color on the scale does my skin most resemble?
  • What is my pigmentation? People who are light, or type 1, have pale white skin and often have freckles as well, while those who are black, or type VI, have very dark skin.
  • How does my skin react to sun exposure? If you burn quite easily, you're probably type I. If you burn rarely -- or never -- then you're most likely type VI.

Read on to find out why it's so important to know your skin tone.


Importance of Knowing Your Skin Tone

Knowing your skin tone is probably most important when it comes to preventing skin cancer. If you are a skin tone type I, II or III, you are at a much greater risk for developing skin cancer [source: American Cancer Society]. You simply don't have as much melanin in your skin as people who are types IV, V or VI. That means you need to do more to protect yourself. It's as simple as wearing sunscreen every day.

Those with darker skin tones don't get off scot-free, either. No one is immune to ultraviolet rays. In other words, just because you're a type VI doesn't mean you can't get skin cancer [source: American Cancer Society]. You might be able to get away with wearing a lower SPF sunscreen than your fair friends, though.


Also, people with darker skin sometimes need different treatment for certain skin conditions than their pale counterparts. This is because melanin, which is located in the upper layer of the skin, tends to react when that area is irritated. Make sure a dermatologist has experience dealing with patients of your skin color before you go in for a visit [source: Marcus].

It also helps to know your skin tone for cosmetic purposes. Face it: cosmetics cost money, so you might as well make sure you're using the products that suit you. Determining your correct skin tone will help you pick out more complementary shades of makeup and clothing. Doing some preliminary research before hitting the mall will better ensure you select items that make you look your best.

Determining your skin tone isn't hard. In fact, you've probably already done it. So put this knowledge to use. Protect yourself from UV rays, and make your natural skin type work for you. Every skin color has its advantages and disadvantages -- you just have to find out what they are.

Read on to learn more about skin tone.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Cancer Society. "Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection." May 21, 2009. (accessed 07/20/2009)
  • Leider, Polly. "The Right Hair Color Can Do Wonders." CBS. March 27, 2006. (accessed 8/6/2009)
  • National Geographic. "Skin." (accessed 07/20/20090)
  • Thompson, Rick O.D., F.A.A.O. "What is Albinism?" NOAH. 2007. (accessed 07/20/2009)
  • Marcus, Mary Brophy. "Under the skin of Color; Patients' ethnicity can change face of dermatology. USA Today. April 8, 2008. (accessed 8/6/2009)
  • Commonwealth of Virginia. "Fitzpatrick Skin Type." (accessed 8/5/2009)
  • Jewish Museum Berlin. Homepage. (accessed 8/5/2009)