U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Indian Health Service: The Federal Health Program for American Indians and Alaska Natives
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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Division of Diabetes Treatment and Prevention - Leading the effort to treat and prevent diabetes in American Indians and Alaska Natives

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Skinfold Measurement

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NOTE: Access to this information is not restricted; however, the information found here is intended for use by medical providers. Some videos contain graphic images. Patients should talk with their medical providers about any specific concerns.

Why measure skinfold?

  • Skinfolds are a method to determine the subcutaneous fat layer thickness; a pinch of skin is precisely measured by calipers at several standardized sites.
  • The most reliable skinfold site for reflecting changes in adiposity, including abdominal visceral adiposity, is the subscapular site.
  • See explanation about interpreting skinfold measurements.

*Skinfolds have been used for decades in sports medicine and clinical applications. Many of these applications include summing skinfolds from several body sites for conversion to a percent body fat by one of a variety of body density equations. The liability of these equations is that they nearly always do not reflect specific ethnic differences which among other variables determine body fat composition. For this and other reasons it is not recommended that cardiometabolic risk management programs use body fat percent conversion equations but instead use a more direct outcome measure: the skinfold measurement itself (in millimeters). These measures are not to be used for screening but as a serial measure of adiposity change between patient visits.

Because it can be difficult to reliabily reproduce a given millimeter skinfold measure it is paramount to understand that the reliability of skinfold measures to reflect true changes in adiposity is dependent on the skill and proficiency of the individual administering the evaluation. The most reliable skinfold site for reflecting changes in adiposity, including abdominal visceral adiposity, is the subscapular site. Tricep skinfolds are fair correlates of whole body adiposity but can be used secondarily to subscapular skinfold sites.

Measuring Skinfolds

  • Use only professional or clinical calipers. (e.g., Lange or Harpenden calipers)
    • Do not use plastic calipers or those with built-in body fat percent conversion microprocessors.
  • Make sure the measurement is taken directly on skin not through clothing.
  • Pick up and hold skinfold with thumb and forefinger of one hand.
  • Apply the jaws of the caliper to the skinfold about 1/2 inch from the fingers holding the fold. Do not release the fingers holding the fold.
  • The caliper should only be used to measure the thickness of the fold not hold the fold in place.
  • Do not place pressure on the caliper as this results in incorrect higher reading.
  • Measure the subscapular or the triceps; an alternate site is the suprailiac when the other sites cannot be successfully used.
  • Trained individuals can take one measurement at each site for reasonable accuracy: using the average two or three measurements increase accuracy.
  • Less skilled individuals should measure two or three times at each site and use the average.
Overview How To Other Resources

Division of Diabetes Treatment and Prevention | Phone: 1-844-IHS-DDTP (1-844-447-3387) | diabetesprogram@ihs.gov