We have had snail gels, vampire facials and Oprah once even endorsed a skin cream made with human foreskin. The global skincare industry is set to be worth $180bn (£140bn) by 2024, but according to a report by Superdrug, 70% of black and Asian women in the UK do not feel that the high street caters for them. Systematic racism, the whitewashing of wellness and skin-bleaching scares all make it more difficult for people with melanin-rich skin to find and trust products that work.
I am a caramel hue that browns easily in the sun and greys quickly in the winter, which has given me an uneven skin tone. Skincare shopping is a mirage of one-problem-fits-all labels, and I have blown a small fortune on an arsenal of products that only create new problems, such as drying my skin out, or causing the white bumps of milia to develop. It wasn’t until recently, when I burnt my skin using facial acids and experienced discoloration from a laser treatment, that I finally realised melanin-rich skin can be sensitive, and not “magically resilient”.
Dr Ophelia Dadzie, the UK’s leading ethnic dermatologist, says there needs “to be a radical overhaul of our approach to the skin”. The myths of “black don’t crack” and “beige don’t age” have led many to believe that those with higher levels of melanin (the pigment that defines all skin colour) do not need to protect their skin. However, not wearing sunscreen on a daily basis (even when it is cloudy) can exacerbate blotchy patches of hyper-pigmentation – the most common skin concern of darker skin – not to mention raise the risk of skin cancer. As demographics diversify, Dadzie says: “We need to expand beyond looking at ethnic skin as something unique; it is normal skin.”
Independent brands are filling gaps left by the mainstream, with research showing that 42.7% of beauty sales growth has come from niche labels. The holistic brand the Afro Hair and Skin Company creates products that seek to eliminate the “common toxins” that its founder and black-wellness advocate Ibi Meier-Oruitemeka sees as “undermining black women’s health”. Meanwhile, luxury skincare label Epara creates products that target discolouration, and Skin by Mamie, beloved by supermodel Iman, offers skincare solutions to those “from all walks of life and ethnicities”.
Imagery still plays a huge role in equating whiteness with wellness, with spa websites dominated by young, thin, white women. The prevalence of this problem spurred the aesthetician Dija Ayodele to start the Black Skin Directory, a site that connects people of colour with clinics that have specialist knowledge of darker skin tones. Other common issues with darker skin can be dermatosis papulosa nigra, a fleshy excess of melanin bumps on the skin, and keloid scarring. All can be treated by experienced aestheticians, yet, says Ayodele: “There are a lot of fears that put black women off going to see professional practitioners. If you have not seen an image of the product on black skin, it’s like, ‘Great, it works for you – but how do I know it works for me?’”
More about: skincare