Understanding Freckles and Age Spots: Mr Fitzpatrick and the Umbrella Factories

In my skin care practice, one of the most common concerns clients have is hyperpigmentation, or spots. We aren’t talking about those cute little spots on puppies, kittens and baby deer.

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Nope, this is about those spots otherwise known as liver spots, age spots, old lady dots, leopard spots or just plain old freckles.

In order to manage these discolorations, its helpful to understand how and why they appear.

Those spots are made in your skin from a pigment called melanin, in our clinic we refer to it as an “umbrella.” They are made in specialized skin cells called melanocytes, or “umbrella factories.”3

Everyone’s skin has these little umbrella factories in their skin, but some of them are way more efficient than others.

In 1976, a Harvard dermatologist named Thomas B Fitzpatrick developed a scale to identify skin color, now know as the Fitzpatrick Scale. To find your “Fitz type”, check this out.

  • Type I (scores 0–6) Pale white; blond or red hair; blue eyes; freckles — Always burns, never tans
  • Type II (scores 7–13) White; fair; blond or red hair; blue, green or hazel eyes — Usually burns, tans minimally
  • Type III (scores 14–20) Cream white; fair with any hair or eye color; quite common — Sometimes mild burn, tans uniformly
  • Type IV (scores 21–27) Moderate brown; typical Mediterranean skin tone — Rarely burns, always tans well
  • Type V (scores 28–34) Dark brown; Middle Eastern skin types — Very rarely burns, tans very easily
  • Type VI (scores 35+) Deeply pigmented dark brown to black — Never burns, tans very easily

Unfortunately, if you happen to be albino, this scale won’t apply to you, and you should probably invest in some serious SPF my friend…

A234533_fitzpatrick_scale_rev

If you are blessed with Fitz 1 or 2, you can pretty much kiss any dreams of a Coppertone tan right out the window. No matter how much you try to bake your skin to a deep golden hue, you will only get freckles. Lots and lots of freckles. Maybe enough to look like a tan, but you are way better off going the spray tan route.

Fitz 3 and 4 are currently the fashion industry faves, they can tan evenly and are generally resilient to sun, unless they overdo it, and then they look old elephant butt. No offense to elephants…

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Fitz 5 and 6 are the bronze Gods and Goddesses of skin tone, their tone even and deep, resistant to wrinkles and solar radiation damage. However…

Let’s go back to those factories. Everyone has the same number of factories (melanocytes) in their skin. It just a matter of whose factories are most efficient and long lasting.

Fitz 1 and 2 could use better general managers working for them. Umbrella production can be slow to start, and uneven, resulting in burns and freckling.

Because they tan so easily, Fitz 3 and 4 have a tendency to overdo the sun, which can make the factories burn out, resulting in hypo-pigmentation (lack of color, white spots) and a leathery look.

Fitz 5 and 6 have the super-duper high efficiency models that work overtime, even when not needed. In fact, anytime their skin gets irritated, even a little, they get boatloads of umbrellas delivered to that spot. Think about the spots that show up after a blemish, a cut or an insect bite. For you, this translates to NO SCRUBS! And I don’t care what you read on the internet, microdermabrasion is a big honking NO-NO for you.

In a nutshell, the skin cells get exposed to sun (or other threat), send out a distress call to the factories, and the factories respond with a quick delivery of umbrellas for protection.

Of course, other factors will rev up production as well, think hormones, inflammation, illness…(that’s a whole other post!)

Got it?

So if you want to avoid spots, you need to protect your skin. Avoid prolonged exposure, cover up with protective clothing, hats, sunglasses, and wear SPF.

No distress call, no umbrellas. Mr. Fitzpatrick can take the day off.

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