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A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Skin Tone Charts

Published:
July 18, 2024
Author:
Heather Endicott NP-C

Skin tone charts have an important role from dermatology to the makeup industry to art/fashion. Understanding these charts can help you make informed decisions about your skin health, enhance your beauty routine, and appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of human skin. In this article, we explore the evolution of skin color and different theories, history of skin tone charts, the science behind skin color, how to determine your skin tone, and debunk common misconceptions.

“THE SEPIA RAINBOW”

Until recently, it was believed that humans developed melanin-dense skin (darker skin color) to protect against the sun. The darker the skin, the less the damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can penetrate. Thus, the closer you are to the equator, the darker your skin color.

This was a highly held belief until Dr. Nina Jablonski (and her husband George Chaplin) published a paper in 1978 linking the evolution of skin color to vitamin deficiency. The paper presented a theory (known as the “The Sepia Rainbow”) that correlates skin color to preventing vitamin D or folate deficiencies. It argued that darker skin wasn’t just a function of sun protection but a process of evolution that provided a better chance of survival for the species. Let’s back up for a moment…

It’s been shown that the harmful effects of UV rays can strip away folate from the body. In women, low folate levels can lead to birth defects. In men, low folate levels can affect sperm production. This does not benefit the human race for those living around the equator, so evolution (smartly) created a natural sunblock to avoid low folate levels…dark colored skin.

On the other hand, Vitamin D needs UV rays to maintain healthy levels. In northern regions (Canada, Alaska, etc.) with limited UV exposure, especially during the winter months, vitamin D levels can get low. Vitamin D is needed for strong bones, healthy teeth, and strong immune function and it can even fight off cancers and heart disease. Thus, less melanin (lighter skin color) was needed through evolution to allow for greater UV absorption.

There is an exception to this rule which adds support to the theory. The Arctic people (i.e. native peoples of Alaska) retain their darker skin tone for two reasons:

  • They need protection from the sun’s rays reflecting off the snow/ice.
  • They do not need additional UV exposure to manufacture vitamin D. Their fish-heavy diet already provides enough.

SKIN TONE CHARTS

Skin tone charts were developed over 100 years ago and it’s important to avoid corresponding skin tone charts with race/ethnicity despite the reason they were initially developed. These modern charts serve as invaluable tools that help us navigate the complexities of skin tones and enhance our understanding of the diverse beauty that exists in the world. Let’s discuss a few of the more well-known ones...

Von Luschan's chromatic scale (VLS) developed 1905

The Von Luschan's chromatic scale is named after Felix von Luschan (anthropologist) and was used extensively throughout the first half of the 20th century to assess racial classifications according to skin color for anthropological purposes. Although the scale was consistent in determining skin color, the results were an unreliable indicator of race and eventually replaced.

Historical Fact: The Von Luschan's chromatic scale was unfortunately manipulated by Nazi Germany in the 1940s to conduct “racial studies”.

The Fitzpatrick Scale was developed in 1975

The Fitzpatrick Scale is named after an American dermatologist Dr. Thomas B. Fitzpatrick. It was developed to help determine the correct dose of UVA for PUVA therapy used to treat skin conditions such as vitiligo, eczema, psoriasis, etc. This chart categorizes individuals into six different types based on their skin's reaction to sunlight, ranging from fair to dark. Basically, it helps predict the potential for skin to burn when exposed to UV radiation. Eventually, it evolved and remains one of the most widely recognized scales serving as a diagnostic tool to classify skin tones and predict their responses to UV exposure. Again, it’s important to note that the Fitzpatrick skin type is a classification intended to reflect sun sensitivity and not a proxy for racial or phenotypic features.

This scale helps medical providers in many ways. A few examples include…

  • predicting a person’s potential to develop skin cancer
  • predicting which skin tone may develop hyperpigmentation more easily when damaged

If you’re interested in learning your Fitzpatrick skin type check out this questionnaire.

Pantone® SkinTone™ Guide debuted in 2012

Pantone is the global authority on color. They determine the "Color of the Year" which influences upcoming fashion, interior design, makeup, etc. A little over 10 years ago, The Pantone® SkinTone™ Guide debuted. It’s described as “a comprehensive visual reference of human skin tones for use in any market where skin colors are relevant. In a global society striving to promote inclusivity and representation, “close enough” is no longer good enough.” This guide serves as a valuable resource for makeup artists, designers, and anyone interested in accurately representing human skin tones. Recently, they added another 28 shades of skin for a total of 110.

Sephora Color IQ with AI technology debuts 2021

In 2012, Sephora collaborated with Pantone® to create a skin tone scanner called Color IQ which incorporated Pantone® SkinTone Guide. A Sephora associate scans your skin with a hand-held device that tells you what foundation color best matches your skin tone. It was helpful, but there was room for improvement. In 2021, Sephora relaunched its Color IQ scanner with AI technology. According to ConsumerGoods.com…

“The new Color iQ leverages a cutting-edge proprietary algorithm that provides customers with a dataset of 10K-plus skin tones, suitable across all shade ranges. Sephora currently offers 8k-plus foundation SKUs, and with the help of this AI-based tool, the retailer's in-store beauty advisors can help shoppers of all skin tones find their perfect match in minutes.”

For makeup enthusiasts, skin tone charts are more than just colorful diagrams. They are indispensable resources that aid in selecting foundations, concealers, and other products that perfectly match an individual's unique skin tones. By consulting these charts, individuals can identify their undertones, whether they lean towards cool, warm, or neutral, and choose products that harmonize with their natural complexion inclusive of all skin colors.

In a little over 100 years, Skin Tone guides have gone from 36 colors to 110 to thousands!

THE SCIENCE BEHIND SKIN TONE

Skin color is primarily determined by the amount and distribution of a pigment called melanin. Melanin is produced by specialized cells called melanocytes, located in the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. The more melanin present in the skin, the darker it appears. The less melanin present in the skin, the lighter it appears.

The human skin is a complex organ. The differences in color (skin pigmentation) we see are a result of the relative ratio of eumelanin (brown–black) to pheomelanin (yellow–red) along with the number of melanosomes within melanocytes.

  • Eumelanin, which appears brown or black, is responsible for the darker skin tones. It is produced in higher quantities in individuals with deeper skin tones.
  • Pheomelanin, which appears yellow to red, is responsible for lighter skin tones. The ratio of these pigments determines an individual's skin tone.

OTHER FACTORS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO SKIN TONE

While melanin is the primary determinant of skin color, other factors also contribute to the overall appearance of an individual's skin tone.

Blood vessels: The presence of more blood vessels near the skin's surface can give it a reddish or pinkish hue, while fewer blood vessels can result in a paler complexion.

Carotenoids: Consuming foods rich in carotenoids, such as carrots and tomatoes, can give the skin a slightly yellow or orange tint. This effect is most noticeable in individuals with lighter skin tones. Don’t believe it? Check out…"Can Eating Too Many Carrots Turn Your Skin Orange?”

Disease: Disease can affect melanin. For example, Vitiligo destroys melanocytes (brown pigment in the skin) leaving behind milky-white patches of skin.

Medications/Supplements: Drug-induced skin discoloration usually only affects areas of the skin rather than a person’s entire body. For example, birth control pills can trigger and/or worsen melasma, a discoloration of the skin that affects the face. It is also known as the “mask of pregnancy.”

Sunlight (UV rays): Skin tone is not solely determined by genetics. Sun exposure stimulates melanin production, leading to a darker complexion (i.e. tan). Conversely, lack of sun exposure can result in a lighter skin tone.

Skincare Products: Sunless tanners are great examples of affecting the color of skin. Sunless tanners temporarily create an artificial tan after application.

SKIN OF COLOR SOCIETY

As we have reviewed, skin tone charts are instrumental in many aspects of society including medicine. They help healthcare professionals identify and develop treatment approaches based on skin characteristics.

Thanks to the hard work of Dr. Susan C. Taylor, the  Skin of Color Society (SOCS) was established in 2004 and has quickly become “a global leader in the skin of color dermatology, promoting awareness of and excellence within the field through research, education, mentorship, and advocacy.”

HOW TO DETERMINE YOUR SKIN TONE

Identifying your skin tone can help you with skin health (i.e. avoiding sunburns and/or hyperpigmentation) to makeup and fashion. Here are a few tips to determine your skin tone:

Identifying Undertones

Undertones are subtle hues beneath the skin's surface that influence how your skin appears. They typically fall into three categories: cool (pink or blue undertones), warm (yellow or golden undertones), and neutral (a mix of cool and warm). Look at the veins on the inside of your wrist; if they appear blue, you likely have cool undertones, while greenish veins indicate warm undertones.

Assessing Skin Color in Different Light Conditions

Evaluating your skin tone under various lighting conditions is essential, as lighting can significantly impact how your skin appears. Natural daylight is the most accurate light source for evaluating your skin tone.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SKIN TONE CHARTS

While skin tone charts are valuable tools, they have their limitations as previously pointed out. The description of skin tone (i.e. white, tan, brown, black, etc) is meant to denote complexion rather than a self-identification of ethnic origin. Skin tone charts offer a general framework for understanding skin color but need help to capture the complexities and nuances of every individual's unique complexion. Human skin is incredibly diverse, and skin tone can vary not only based on ethnicity but also within individuals of the same ethnicity due to factors such as geographical location, genetic variation, and environmental influences.

Learn more about Piction Health’s online dermatology services to get the expert care you need.

FAQ

Q: What skin tone has the least potential for developing skin cancer?
A: Darker skin tones. According to the Association of American Medical Providers (AAMP)...”Black people are far less likely to develop melanoma than non-Hispanic White people (at a rate of 1 per 100,000 compared to 30 per 100,000) due to the protection that melanin, the body’s natural skin pigment, provides from damaging ultraviolet rays. However, Black people who do develop cancer have a much lower five-year survival rate.”
Q: What is the 2024 Pantone color of the year?
A: Peach Fuzz
Q: True or False: A man turned blue from self-treating health issues.
A: True. Paul Karason of Bellingham, WA consumed homemade silver chloride colloid and applied colloidal silver on his face in an attempt to treat problems with his sinuses, dermatitis, acid reflux, and other issues. This resulted in a skin condition called Argyria.

Piction Health Virtual Dermatology

Piction Health offers a convenient and efficient way to receive professional dermatological guidance without leaving home. Our board-certified dermatologists can assess and diagnose various skin conditions of all skin types. To learn more about our services, visit  Piction Health's online dermatology care or schedule an online appointment today.

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