How to Determine Your Skin Tone

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.