Fitzpatrick skin type (FST) is the most commonly used classification system in dermatologic practice. It was developed by Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, MD, PhD, in 1975 to assess the propensity of the skin to burn during phototherapy.1 Fitzpatrick skin type also can be used to assess the clinical benefits and efficacy of cosmetic procedures, including laser hair removal, chemical peel and dermabrasion, tattoo removal, spray tanning, and laser resurfacing for acne scarring.2 The original FST classifications included skin types I through IV; skin types V and VI were later added to include individuals of Asian, Indian, and African origin.1 As a result, FST often is used by providers as a means of describing constitutive skin color and ethnicity.3
How did FST transition from describing the propensity of the skin to burn from UV light exposure to categorizing skin color, thereby becoming a proxy for race? It most likely occurred because there has not been another widely adopted classification system for describing skin color that can be applied to all skin types. Even when the FST classification scale is used as intended, there are inconsistencies with its accuracy; for example, self-reported FSTs have correlated poorly with sunburn risk as well as physician-reported FSTs.4,5 Although physician-reported FSTs have been demonstrated to correlate with race, race does not consistently correlate with objective measures of pigmentation or self-reported FSTs.5 For example, Japanese women often self-identify as FST type II, but Asian skin generally is considered to be nonwhite.1 Fitzpatrick himself acknowledged that race and ethnicity are cultural and political terms with no scientific basis.6 Fitzpatrick skin type also has been demonstrated to correlate poorly with constitutive skin color and minimal erythema dose values.7
We conducted an anonymous survey of dermatologists and dermatology trainees to evaluate how providers use FST in their clinical practice as well as how it is used to describe race and ethnicity.
The survey was distributed electronically to dermatologists and dermatology trainees from March 13 to March 28, 2019, using the Association of Professors of Dermatology listserv, as well as in person at the annual Skin of Color Society meeting in Washington, DC, on February 28, 2019. The 8-item survey included questions about physician demographics (ie, primary practice setting, board certification, and geographic location); whether the respondent identified as an individual with skin of color; and how the respondent utilized FST in clinical notes (ie, describing race/ethnicity, skin cancer risk, and constitutive [baseline] skin color; determining initial phototherapy dosage and suitability for laser treatments, and likelihood of skin burning). A t test was used to determine whether dermatologists who identified as having skin of color utilized FST differently.
A total of 141 surveys were returned, and 140 respondents were included in the final analysis. Given the methods used to distribute the survey, a response rate could not be calculated. The respondents included more board-certified dermatologists (70%) than dermatology trainees (30%). Ninety-three percent of respondents indicated an academic institution as their primary practice location. Notably, 26% of respondents self-identified as having skin of color.
Forty-one percent of all respondents agreed that FST should be included in their clinical documentation. In response to the question “In what scenarios would you refer to FST in a clinical note?” 31% said they used FST to describe patients’ race or ethnicity, 47% used it to describe patients’ constitutive skin color, and 22% utilized it in both scenarios. Respondents who did not identify as having skin of color were more likely to use FST to describe constitutive skin color, though this finding was not statistically significant (P=.063). Anecdotally, providers also included FST in clinical notes on postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma, and treatment with cryotherapy.