Melanin is a pigment that gives skin, eyes, and hair their colour. It also provides some protection against skin damage from the sun and is responsible for tanning. There are different types: dark skin contains more ‘eumelanin’, while lighter skin has more ‘pheomelanin’. Eumelanin is thought to provide a greater level of protection from the sun.
The Fitzpatrick skin type classification
A person’s natural skin colour influences their risk of sun damage, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer and can be classified on a scale – the Fitzpatrick skin type classification scale, which ranges from 1 (high risk) to 6 (low risk). It considers skin colour (i.e. pale white to black), and how the skin reacts to sunlight (i.e. whether it burns easily, or tans).
People with pale skin, that burns easily and never tan, who have blue eyes, with blond or red-coloured hair and freckles, are categorised as having ‘skin type 1’ (high risk). Those with black skin which darkens easily when exposed to sunlight and rarely if ever burns, have dark brown eyes and black hair, are categorised as having ‘skin type 6’ (low risk). A person’s skin type is genetically determined and does not change or vary, based on level of tanning.
Most people living in Ireland have fair skin (skin type 1 or 2) which burns easily and tans poorly, so are particularly vulnerable to sun damage and skin cancer.
Irish research – we think we’re darker than we really are!
However, research indicates that those with fairer skin often judge themselves to be darker than they actually are and as a consequence, underestimate their vulnerability to the harmful effects of overexposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun.
Findings from a recent Irish study carried out by Drs Havelin and Feighery in the Dermatology Department of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital Drogheda, and presented at the Irish Association of Dermatologists Spring Meeting 2017, found that the majority (66%) of patients questioned, underestimated their skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.
Know your skin type
These results are worrying, given that skin type is an important risk factor for the development of skin cancer. This is why it is so important to know your ‘skin type’ to get a better sense of the care you need to take in the sun.
Reduce your risk
You can reduce your risk of skin cancer by avoiding overexposure to UV radiation from sunlight or artificial sources (e.g. sunbeds). If you are concerned about a change or growth on your skin, you should always see your doctor. Fortunately, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer can be completely cured if it is identified and removed early.
We want everyone in Ireland to learn to Protect & Inspect their skin! Download our short guide, written with hospital-based dermatologists, to checking your skin.