We Need To Set The Record Straight On Skin Care For Darker Complexions

The experts weigh in.

McKinsey Jordan/Stocksy
Melanin Skin Care

Skin care that caters to deeper complexions, often referred to as melanin skin care, is not necessarily a new frontier — household name brands like AMBI, Blk Opal, and Palmers, have maintained enduring spots on the bathroom shelves of Black mothers and grandmothers for decades. Most recently brands like Topicals and Hyper! Skin have become the staples for the younger generation of Black skin care consumers.

As the world most recently held a spotlight on the various ways Black people are disenfranchised (remember summer of 2021?), both new and established multicultural beauty brands received critical support that catalyzed aggressive growth and diversified buying options for the very first time. Even Black skin care influencers saw increased engagement in their content — many built entire platforms from posts that sift through what darker hued consumers should and shouldn’t use on their skin. From a bird’s eye view, this seemed like the desired outcome.

But the rise of skin-tone-specific messaging has brought with it overwhelming amounts of (sometimes misleading) information, leaving many consumers wondering what does melanin skin care actually mean and consequently, is it even necessary?

To answer the most pressing questions on the topic and set the record straight, TZR tapped a few of the industry’s top experts who have a wealth of knowledge in treating melanin skin.

Is There A Need For Melanin-Rich Skin Care?

Most melanin skin care products enter the market on the authority that Black and brown skin have unique needs that other products are unable to properly address — a blanket perspective not all skin of color experts share equally. “This is a complicated issue,” says Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, Board Certified Dermatologist and founder of Specific Beauty Skincare. “For general skin care like cleansing and moisturizing, most brands are appropriate for all skin types. For problem-focused needs, you’ll most likely benefit from a brand that focuses on skin of color because their formulations consider our most common issues.”

Exclusive products for darker skin may not always be required, but the body of research to date suggests formulas that double down on advanced pigment-lifting, treating inflammation and repairing the skin barrier are particularly beneficial to Black and brown beauty consumers. Hyper! Skin founder Desiree Verdejo always references these tent poles during product development. Following the viral success of Hyper!’s brightening vitamin C serum, the Hyper Even Fade and Glow AHA Mask was intentionally built around a hard-working active that is noteworthy for its ability to effectively treat dark spots without irritation. “Mandelic acid is a more gentle acid that is less likely to hyperpigment and also is anti-inflammatory so it’s great for multiple concerns our community deals with,” she explains. “The goal is what’s best for our community and their needs, but melanin skin care is not exclusive. Positioning and centering melanin-rich skin does not mean it does not work well for others, it just means that this category deserves attention.”

There Are Some Drawbacks

Other experts are concerned that while there are some special considerations with darker skin, like a propensity to develop hyperpigmentation, the current state of the category leaves consumers of color vulnerable to harmful misinformation. “The differences between skin tones isn’t so much how you treat it, but how skin conditions present themselves,” says Kahina Jean-Baptiste, esthetician and beauty content creator. “The idea that there is something vastly, genetically different further alienates Black people, specifically dark skinned women, and encourages otherism. We see it in the SPF conversation. When darker-skinned people think they don’t need [sunscreen because they are inherently different], it becomes dangerous.”

Overemphasizing genetic differences has the potential to position the industry at the top of a slippery slope, but research has identified a handful of unique characteristics that are pertinent to product formulation. “When I think of skin care for darker skin I think of products that address dark spots and hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Woolery-Lloyd. “We definitely have more active melanocytes meaning any injury or irritation is more likely to induce pigment disorders so you can’t be overly aggressive.”

Hyperpigmentation is a stubborn skin condition to treat and poses expensive product testing concerns some brands choose to forgo altogether. “Fading a dark spot in [lighter skin] is different than in [darker skin],” she says. “The number of skin of color patients included in a study directly influences the true efficacy of the product on different skin tones.” Dr. Woolery explains other clinical disparities may not have as strong of data but are still worth acknowledging. “Some studies have revealed skin of color might have more [water loss] and lower ceramides which are the lipids essential to the skin’s barrier. It doesn’t mean you have to buy a special moisturizer but we possibly have a predisposition to drier skin.”

The Issue Goes Deeper Than Products

Intentional attention on skin of color also greatly impacts professional care. “You really need to understand certain nuances when dealing with melanated skin. For instance, many skin conditions can present differently in darker skin tones,” says Dr. Rose Ingleton, Board Certified Dermatologist and founder of Rose MD Skincare. Eczema is more common in patients of African and Asian descent but looks quite different than in lighter skin leading to higher rates of late or misdiagnosis. Better education on deeper skin tones can help close this gap and directly increase quality of care.

“While we’re still far from true equity in dermatology, we have come a long way,” says Dr. Ingleton. “For example, laser hair removal used to be off-limits for darker skin tones because the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to tell the difference between melanin in the skin and melanin in the hair. This is a very important distinction to make as using the wrong laser can leave severe scarring. Now, they have smarter lasers that can be used on darker skin tones.”

Lifestyle factors offer another vantage point to look at melanin skin care. Understanding cultural norms and behaviors can inform how a brand speaks to consumers of color rather than the types of products created. “Our overall efforts should be put towards the basics,” says Jean-Baptiste. “Sun protection; more hydrating routines instead of the stripping bar soaps; diverting from the shea butters to humectants. We need to find a way to introduce healthy skin habits in a more approachable way to Black consumers.”

It Comes Down To Representation

While the data confirms there are some ethnic variations, consumers should be wary of brands that overstate the facts or invalidate specific ingredients on the basis of skin color. The continued growth of melanin skin care should authentically address consumer needs rather than fabricate new issues. Special skin considerations aside, the beauty industry has historically ignored multicultural consumers in formulation, representation and marketing making the need for a focus shift apparent.

“Melanin-rich skin has been an afterthought in the beauty industry for a long time,” says Dr. Ingleton. “We need to be clear that many skin care products not specifically created for melanin-rich skin can absolutely still work and are safe for melanin-rich skin, but we deserve to be seen and celebrated. So, I think it’s great that more companies are starting to center our community.”

To that point, if your motivation in shopping melanin-rich skin care is to support Black representation in the skin care community, it may just be a matter of making a conscious effort to shop Black-owned, or see Black dermatologists and estheticians to support their efforts in the industry.