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Here's Where Emoji Skin-Tone Colors Come From

Here are the latest set of emoji.
Here are the latest set of emoji.

In emoji news (one of my favorite types of weird news, ever): Apple this week released a beta operating system to its testers that finally includes noticeably browner — and, um, yellower — choices.

So how did Unicode, the consortium that sets the standard for emojis, settle on particular colors for their icons? Vocativ's Sarah Kaufman explains that the tones are based on a scale created in 1975 by Harvard dermatologist Thomas Fitzpatrick, "the father of academic dermatology," to assess how different people's skins reacted to varying degrees of UV rays.

Kaufman helps break down the skin categories:

  • Type I (scores 0 to 6): Pale white; blond or red hair; blue eyes; freckles — Always burns, never tans
  • Type II (scores 7 to 13): White; fair; blond or red hair; blue, green or hazel eyes — Usually burns, tans minimally
  • Type III (scores 14 to 20): Cream white; fair with any hair or eye color; quite common — Sometimes mild burn, tans uniformly
  • Type IV (scores 21 to 27): Moderate brown; typical Mediterranean skin tone — Rarely burns, always tans well
  • Type V (scores 28 to 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
  • Vocativ has more on how Fitzpatrick came up with the scale, as well as a skin-type quiz you can take.

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    Kat Chow is a reporter with NPR and a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is currently on sabbatical, working on her first book (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette). It's a memoir that digs into the questions about grief, race and identity that her mother's sudden death triggered when Kat was young.