First published June 2017; updated May 2019
Melanin is a pigment that gives skin, eyes, and hair their colour. It also provides some protection against skin damage from ultraviolet radiation (UV) present in sunlight 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 UV.
The Fitzpatrick skin type classification
A person’s natural skin colour influences their risk of UV 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 UV 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 UV from the sun.
Findings from an 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.
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).
Know the UV index
The Global Solar UV index is a scale that was developed by the World Health Organisation which measures the UV radiation level at the surface of the Earth, and gives an indication of the potential for skin damage. In Ireland, make sun protection part of your daily routine particularly from April – September, when the UV index is usually 3 or above, even when it is cloudy.
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! Read our short guide, written with hospital-based dermatologists, to checking your skin.