Among the most common misconceptions about skin phototypes is the belief that individuals with fair skin cannot tan, while those with dark skin cannot get sunburned. What is the actual truth?
Can all skin types tan?
Is tanning possible, regardless of one's skin type?
Each individual possesses their own melanin level, the brown pigment that gives skin its shade, which explains the diversity of phototypes. Additionally, there are two types of melanin, synthesized in different proportions depending on the individual: the eumelanin, which is quite dark and protective, and the pheomelanin, which is lighter and less reactive to the sun. It is indeed the quantity of melanin that varies from one phototype to another, not the number of melanocytes, the cells responsible for its synthesis. This biological difference is the origin of disparities in terms of tanning efficiency and sensitivity to sunburn among different phototypes.
However, even though skin color influences its ability to tan, all skin types can achieve a sun-kissed hue. This will, of course, occur to varying degrees and will not require the same duration of exposure. Indeed, compared to darker skin, individuals with lighter skin synthesize less eumelanin when exposed to the sun. However, people with albinism or a specific skin disease are exceptions to this.
It's worth noting that all skin types are susceptible to sunburn and that the damage caused by UV rays (hyperpigmentation, skin aging, dryness, cancers...) occurs regardless of the phototype, although fair skin is naturally more sensitive. Therefore, it is advised for everyone to use a sun care product before each exposure and to reapply every two hours in case of prolonged exposure or in case of swimming and heavy sweating.
Tanning achieved according to phototypes.
The complexion achieved after sun exposure primarily depends on the phototype in question. Here is an overview of the degree of tanning one can expect based on their skin tone.
The phototype 0.
This phototype pertains to individuals with albinism, meaning they suffer from a partial or total lack of melanin. This genetic disorder prevents their melanocytes from synthesizing melanin. As a result, the skin of individuals with albinism is very light, while their hair is white or a very pale blonde. Regardless of the weather or the degree of sun exposure, these individuals will not tan but will easily get sunburned.
The Phototype 1.
Phototype 1 pertains to individuals who are red or blonde-haired. With light-colored eyes, these individuals also stand out due to their freckles. They are highly susceptible to sunburn and must pay great attention to protecting their skin. Their skin may tan very slightly but will always remain light.
The Phototype 2.
Individuals in this category have blonde to light brown hair and fair skin. They may sometimes have a few freckles, especially after intense sun exposure. The skin of these individuals can tan but also turn red. When they protect themselves with sun care, they are highly likely to have a slightly to moderately tanned complexion by the end of their vacation.
The Phototype 3.
This refers to an intermediate phototype. The individuals in question have blond to brown hair and their skin is naturally light to slightly tanned. They do not have freckles. Depending on the color of their eyes, they are more or less sensitive to the acceleration of skin aging under the sun, with light eyes being very susceptible. The rate of tanning or skin burning occurs gradually, resulting in moderate tanning.
The Phototype 4.
Individuals in this group have brown or brunette hair. Their skin is fairly tanned and devoid of freckles. It tans quickly to achieve a dark complexion and sunburns are rare.
The Phototype 5.
Individuals belonging to phototype 5 have dark hair and eyes, and their skin is naturally very dark. They tan quite easily, which makes their skin even more bronzed than usual. They are less prone to superficial sunburns, but their skin is not entirely protected from the negative effects of UV rays.
The Phototype 6.
This phototype represents individuals with very dark skin. Their hair and eyes are black. These individuals are also less susceptible to superficial sunburns, but this does not mean they are completely protected from UV rays. They naturally have a deep tan but can still tan further when exposed to the sun.
SHARMA V. & al. Skin typing: Fitzpatrick grading and others. Clinics in Dermatology (2019).