Burn Notice

Take the Fitzpatrick Skin Type quiz to help determine how vulnerable you are to cancer

August 14, 2008|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun reporter

Are you about to embark upon the sunny, sultry open road? Don't forget to apply sunscreen, particularly on your left arm, even if you don't intend to stick it out the window.

You say you own neither a convertible nor a sunroof? It doesn't matter. Some of the sun's harmful, ultraviolet rays can penetrate glass and damage skin cells, making your body susceptible to some skin cancers.

In fact, as the close of summer nears and folks cram in as many outdoor activities as possible before fall, it might be a good idea for people to check how their skin type and lifestyle make them susceptible to cancer-causing sunburn. (Remember: UV rays can contribute to skin cancer year-round.)

The Fitzpatrick Skin Type quiz, a classification method developed by Harvard Medical School doctor Thomas Fitzpatrick in 1975, uses genetic composition (eye color, hair color, natural skin color and amount of freckles) and reaction to sun exposure to determine how susceptible people are to sunburn.

The method breaks down skin types into six categories, from very fair (Type I) to very dark (Type VI).

Dr. Luette Semmes, an educational spokeswoman for the Skin Cancer Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization, says it is important to remember that any time you burn, whether it be on a beach or in a car, you've damaged skin cells.

"While riding in a car, the windshield tends to block ultraviolet B rays, but it doesn't block ultraviolet A rays," said Semmes, who is based in Salisbury. "That's why you see more skin cancer on the left side of the body than the right side, because people driving expose their left side to more sun."

There are a few types of ultraviolet rays, but only UVA and UVB rays cause skin cancer. UVA rays account for up to 95 percent of the solar UV radiation that reaches Earth's surface. They contribute to some skin aging and skin cancers, and are up to 50 times more prevalent than UVB rays. They can penetrate glass and clouds and are present during daylight year-round.

UVB rays are more powerful than UVA rays; they are responsible for burning and tanning, and they play a key role in the development of skin cancer. They cannot penetrate glass, but when sunlight hits reflective areas such as snow, the chance of being exposed to the rays and burned increases. UVB rays can burn people year-round, but the most significant time they are present is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April through October.

"Any time you see tanning of the skin," Semmes said, "that is a sign of skin damage. Tanning is an adaptive mechanism that the body uses to protect itself from more skin damage."

People from parts of the world closest to the Equator (particularly those of African descent) developed a natural ability to withstand more UV rays as a result of more exposure to it. Those who hail from the areas farthest from the Equator (particularly those of European descent) have less ability to withstand the rays.

Therefore, it's no wonder that Semmes says the skin-cancer hotbed of the world is Australia, a country close to the Equator but primarily inhabited by people of European descent.

But, she said, everyone, including people with dark complexions, is susceptible to some forms of sun damage and skin cancer.



To determine how susceptible you are to burns and cancer, take the Fitzpatrick Skin Type quiz and tally your score to find your skin type (on Page 3C). Then follow the precautions based on that type.

Part I: Genetic Disposition

Your eye color is:

Light blue, light gray or light green = 0

Blue, gray or green = 1

Hazel or light brown = 2

Dark brown = 3

Brownish-black = 4

Your natural hair color is:

Red or light blond = 0

Blond = 1

Dark blond or light brown = 2

Dark brown = 3

Black = 4

Your natural skin color (before sun exposure) is:

Ivory = 0

Fair or pale = 1

Fair to beige, with a golden undertone = 2

Olive or light brown = 3

Dark brown or black = 4

How many freckles do you have on unexposed areas of your skin?

Many = 0

Several = 1

Some = 2

Very few = 3

None = 4

Total score for genetic disposition: ___

Part II: Reaction to extended sun exposure

How does your skin respond to the sun?

Always burns, blisters and peels = 0

Often burns, blisters and peels = 1

Burns moderately = 2

Burns rarely, if at all = 3

Never burns = 4

Does your skin tan?

Never = 0

Seldom = 1

Sometimes = 2

Often = 3

Always = 4

How deeply do you tan?

Not at all or very little = 0

Lightly = 1

Moderately = 2

Deeply = 3

Very deeply = 4

How sensitive is your face to the sun?

Very sensitive = 0

Sensitive = 1

Normal = 2

Resistant = 3

Very resistant/Never had a problem = 4

Total score for reaction to sun exposure: ___

[Source: The Skin Cancer Foundation]


Skin type score: 0-6

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