The Skin-Care Industry Still Has a Long Way To Go When It Comes To Making Products That Work for Skin of Color

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Thanks to the new standard set by Fenty Beauty’s 40-shade foundation range, inclusivity has become a non-negotiable in the makeup world. But while progress in color cosmetics may lead you to believe that beauty at large has made leaps and bounds toward being truly inclusive, diversity within the skin-care industry still needs to be prioritized.

“‘Good skin’ is a luxury and status symbol in this country, and communities of color have been left behind,” says Caroline Robinson, MD, board-certified dermatologist, and founder of Tone Dermatology. In the United States, Black women spend an estimated $465 million a year on skin care—yet, despite their buying power, the majority of mainstream skin-care products are formulated with caucasian skin in mind. While some products, like cleansers and moisturizers, work for all complexions of all colors, according to dermatologist Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD, darker skin has its own needs when it comes to treatment products, and the industry isn't meeting them. According to a 2,000 person survey from Le Cerre Skincare found that 63 percent of women of color feel "ignored" by the industry, and that "there aren't enough effective products for them."

Experts In This Article

Melanin-rich skin is more susceptible to discoloration and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) than Caucasian skin, yet over-the-counter products that work to treat these issues in darker skin tones are few and far between. "You might see a product that advertises itself by saying, '50 to 90 percent of women felt that their brown spots faded in four weeks' but it really means 90 percent of skin types one through three—and that’s not that hard to do,” says Dr. Woolery-Lloyd, pointing to the Fitzpatrick scale, a classification system that dermatologists use to categorize skin colors from lightest (type one) to darkest (type six).  “For a person with Black skin, it may not work, because their dark spots are much more pigmented and harder to improve.” She adds that even ingredients that do work to fade discoloration in darker skin, like hydroquinone, may cause ghosting or a lightening “halo effect” around spot-treated areas if they aren’t applied carefully. Hardly an ideal solution.

While the lack of inclusivity is glaringly apparent in the industry's product offerings, the roots of the issue run deeper: For too long, women of color have been underrepresented in medicine, medical research, and the decision-making positions at cosmetic companies, and that is reflected in the products we see on the shelves.

Making dermatology more diverse

Part of the problem starts with dermatologists, who often consult on the development of skin-care products. Skin conditions often present differently in darker skin tones, and thus darker complexions have different needs. Yet a 2012 survey found that 47 percent of dermatologists felt that their medical training didn’t prepare them to treat Black skin, and a 2008 study found that only 12.2 percent of dermatology programs had a rotation in which residents gained specific experience in treating patients with skin of color.

“You’ll find African American estheticians and dermatologists who can treat both Caucasian skin and African American skin, but you won’t find it the other way around,” says Sandra Morgan Downie, a medical esthetician and the founder of Amenda Beauty.

Having more Black dermatologists would be beneficial (they make up only 3 percent of the dermatologists in the U.S., a stark contrast to the 15 percent of Black patients who make up the country's population), but all dermatologists should be trained to treat—and recommend products for—skin of color. “You could think of it as another insidious form of racism. Why do [doctors] consider taking care of skin of color an optional field of study?” asks Chaneve Jeanniton, MD, a board-certified oculofacial plastic surgeon based in Brooklyn, New York.

Another issue for skin care's lack of inclusion is clinical trials. While the FDA requires that drug trials for topical medicines include a spectrum of skin tones, over-the-counter products aren’t subject to any sort of inclusivity standards. "I definitely still think that when beauty brands do a study, they don't include as many people of color in their studies because they're not being forced to,” says Dr. Woolery-Lloyd.

With products like harsh scrubs, intense acids, and chemical peels—even the ones you can find over the counter—these disparities are especially problematic. “When we do clinical trials, we worry about safety and efficacy, and safety becomes important for skin of color because the melanocytes are more reactive, and any little irritation can cause hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Woolery-Lloyd. She adds that the effects of a product can change depending on where your skin falls on the Fitzpatrick scale. “For someone with skin type two or three, a deep peel is perfectly fine and there’s really no risk of any issues, but a deep peel for someone with skin types four or five is very risky.”

This lack of research has the potential to cause major, long-term skin problems for those in BIPOC communities. “I know so many women who’ve come to me in the office who’ve suffered at the hands of poorly formulated products—who have invested their money in something and then all of a sudden are having to do repair work because it created irritation in their skin,” says Dr. Jeanniton.

That said, it’s not all bad news: Though the industry at large has continued to fall short, there are some researchers making melanin-rich skin a priority. The Skin of Color Society—which was founded in 2004—has conducted a number of studies surrounding the specific needs of skin of color, like how to diagnose rosacea and how to manage PIH in darker skin tones. And just this year, to help dermatologists care for a more diverse set of patients, British medical student Malone Mukwende developed a handbook called Mind The Gap that features photos of common skin issues on Black and brown skin, something sorely lacking in many medical textbooks.

“We are becoming a more and more diverse nation, and the traditional texts and textbooks need to evolve with the changing society,” says Dr. Robinson.

Fixing corporate inclusivity issues

The problems aren't limited to the medical field; it’s also important for more BIPOC executives to be working in leadership positions at cosmetics brands. “We need Black leadership in mainstream, white brands,” says Dr. Robinson.

In June of this year, Sharon Chuter, founder of Uoma Beauty, launched the “Pull Up or Shut Up” challenge on Instagram, calling out brands in beauty and beyond for their lack of organizational inclusivity and imploring them to hire BIPOC candidates. “Everybody has been talking about the lack of inclusivity from the product perspective, but I thought they were looking at it from the wrong angle,” Chuter said during the Well+Good Beauty State of the Union TALK in September. “The reason why the output looks like that is because the input is wrong: Most product development teams aren’t diverse…So, when people are asking for more inclusivity in products, [they] should be asking about the makeup of these organizations, because you can’t ask people to fix a problem they can’t understand.”

The hope is that with more representation in leadership at the top, the beauty industry—and more importantly, its Black consumers—will be able to see more products that actually meet their needs.

Getting better products on shelves

There are skin-care ranges that address the needs of darker complexions, like Mele, Epara, SheaMoisture, and Dr. Barbara Sturm Darker Skin Tones, but it can still be difficult to find treatment products—especially at mass retailers.

Once more products are created, they still need to make their way into retail stores. Before Sephora pledged to stock 15 percent of its inventory with Black-owned brands in early June, only nine of the 290 brands on its roster were founded by BIPOC (and only two of those brands included skin-care products). “[Companies] kind of just throw the same products at people of color that they do others, which may react to our skin differently,” says Kay Cola, founder of OrganiGrowHairCo. “No one has really developed or formulated things that are non-toxic and healthy for us that can help us deal with these skin conditions.”

It’s no surprise the few treatment products that do work on darker skin come from indie brands founded by Black skin-care professionals. Dr. Woolery-Lloyd’s Specific Beauty addresses pigment issues in melanin-rich skin, Dr. Jeanniton’s Epi.Logic was designed with hyperpigmentation in mind, and Downie’s Amenda Beauty was inspired by her own skin concerns as a Black woman. “I think women of color want to hear that they’re being considered in the formulations, and also know that what’s being put out is not going to make their concerns worse,” says Dr. Jeanniton. “You can understand why people would be more confident in buying from a Black-owned brand, because there’s a confidence that they’ve been considered in this formulation.”

Part of the reason is that the onus has been put on Black-owned brands to develop skin-care products that cater to the specific needs of their community. But development takes money, and investors have largely ignored Black business owners. Only 1 percent of entrepreneurs backed by venture capital funding are Black, according to a 2017 Rate My Investor report, and 0.2 percent are Black women. The initiative Consider Something Better, co-led by beauty entrepreneur Lauren Napier and Whitney Brown, founder of the Meet the Owner digital platform, is out to change this by helping Black female founders raise capital, but they have their work cut out for them. And the responsibility to create safe, stable products for all skin tones shouldn't be solely on Black-owned brands: It should be on every brand. For skin care to become truly inclusive and have its own “40 shades of foundation”-style reckoning, it’s going to take a multi-level shift across the industry.

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