All skin types are not equal, and the beauty industry has made those differences even more apparent when it comes to skins of color. A February 2020 study found that dermatology is the second least diverse specialty in medicine, and another saw that in 58 skin care studies, 75% of participants were white. Needless to say, the field has a significant amount of work to do to face this diversity gap that overlooks the BIPOC population.
“There's not a critical mass of dermatologists to investigate and study the needs of those conditions that are prevalent in [BIPOC] populations,” says Dr. Valerie Harvey, MD, dermatologist and co-director of the Hampton University Skin of Color Research Institute. And this lack of knowledge affects what people are using on their skin.
Black dermatologists account for only 4% of the field in the United States. At the same time, the Black population makes up 13% of the country — a gap that is even more glaring because there are unique conditions that appear more in BIPOC skin types and tones (like post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma) that haven’t been thoroughly studied.
But given the events that have happened over the past year, with rallying cries for equality across society and in many industries, more and more skin care brands, beauty companies, and researchers have been taking note. Here’s why representation is so important, and what still needs to be done to address the lack of diversity in the skin care industry.
Why BIPOC Representation In Skin Care Is So Important
A lot of what the industry knows about skin has been studied “in white skin or lighter skin,” says Harvey. That affects the safety (or lack thereof) of what BIPOC consumers are using. This is concerning, because darker skin behaves differently when it comes to a long list of conditions like acne, eczema, keloids due to scarring, dermatitis, alopecia, and acute skin lupus, says Harvey. Because higher pigmented skin types are rich in melanin, it is more likely to result in hyperpigmentation when it heals — this is due to the higher production of melanocytes in those with darker skin, which are cells that produce melanin (aka those dark spots you experience after skin damage). And some of the beauty products available that claim to treat hyperpigmentation aren’t necessarily formulated to work for melanin-rich complexions that heal differently.
“There's not a critical mass of dermatologists to investigate and study the needs of those conditions that are prevalent in [BIPOC] populations.”
That means efficacy of skin care products is affected as well, something both Dr. Susan Taylor, MD, the founding director of the Skin of Color Society and professor of dermatology and department vice-chair for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey say is the case when a whole population is left out of research. For instance, if a vitamin C serum claims to fade dark spots, it’s highly likely that it was only tested on lighter skin types and may not even be as effective on darker skin tones.
How Lack Of Inclusive Research Affects The Consumer
Until more inclusive research into all skins of color becomes a reality, darker-skinned women not only have to struggle with mainstream beauty standards that have traditionally catered more to lighter skin — they also have to navigate racist standards and beliefs about what skin type is more desirable. For so long, everything from research to product covers and advertising focused on white and lighter skins, and the industry needs to be more inclusive and mindful about messaging, says Dr. Michelle Henry, MD, the clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
“If a vitamin C serum claims to fade dark spots, it’s highly likely that it was only tested on lighter skin types and may not even be as effective on darker skin tones.”
If the brand’s marketing only includes one type of woman, Henry says, then the brands are “telling us is that we're not included.” So, instead of “repackaging a product and then writing, for skins of color or for deeper skin tones,'' she says companies should focus more on the ingredients that address BIPOC unique concerns and better research product messaging by considering the impact of their branding campaigns for all people. She’s hopeful that given last year’s racial reckoning, with more brands being awakened to the need for true inclusivity from top-down, real change may sweep the industry sooner than later.
The State Of Inclusivity In The Beauty World
It wasn't until lately that experts have noticed been a reactive charge within the skin care and beauty industry. “There are a whole host of initiatives, most recently driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the awareness of the importance of diversity, equity, [and] inclusion, by various institutions,” says Taylor.
Skin care companies like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson began taking steps to remove words from their marketing and packaging that may come across as racist such as “white/whitening” and “light/lightening.” A few months later, L’Oréal followed suit by stating they were committed to “Beauty for All” and meeting the needs of every culture. And most recently, Estée Lauder said they were focused on racial equity and committed to being a diverse beauty company with choices for “diverse consumers.”
Last June, Johnson & Johnson took a step in the right direction toward inclusivity when it came to marketing to skins of color. They stopped selling and producing skin-whitening products they marketed as dark-spot reducers, but were really aimed and reviewed by customers to make their skin tones lighter. In July, Unilever followed Neutrogena’s steps and removed “fair” from their long produced and sold Fair & Lovely face cream, which they now call Glow & Lovely. Both were addressing the problematic advertising lingo that called for skin care products to lighten the skin, which was — up until pretty recently — commonplace in beauty product packaging. “The terms ‘brightening’ or ‘brighter skin’ each are acceptable,” Taylor says, but there’s a problem with “‘bleaching’, because that implies something different than wanting bright, radiant skin.”
Fenty Beauty sparked a call for more inclusive color ranges within cosmetics with its 40 foundation shades, which launched in 2017 — from there, having an extensive shade range has pretty much become standard, and larger makeup brands (like Maybelline and CoverGirl) have increased their coverage options to match the complexions of more of its consumers. Before that, however, it was Black and BIPOC entrepreneurs who took formulations into their own hands and created the shade options and darker skin-friendly skin care formulas they needed.
Companies need to know and understand the BIPOC community.
“There's been a significant effort to create skin of color centers around the U.S. to serve patients and to be a source of scientific investigation,” says Taylor. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), she adds, also just approved a 3-year diversity plan that includes educational initiatives. As co-chair, she’s creating a skin of color curriculum for dermatology residents. On the consumer front, Vaseline recently partnered with HUED, a platform that connects people of color to medical professionals of color, to develop a database of culturally competent dermatologists across the country.
So, according to experts, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for real inclusivity within the industry beyond expanding foundation shades and removing branding words here and there. But, since diversity not a short-term strategy, Taylor wants to see additional practices to sustain awareness.
First, companies need to know and understand the BIPOC community. “You have to reach out to that customer,” she says. “Find out what that consumer wants and needs.” To accomplish that, Taylor says companies must hire minority men and women, from leadership all the way down, to make sure all voices are heard “because people of color are going to be able to guide and prevent those horrible missteps moving forward.”
And finally, she advises companies never repurpose products intended for white skin for skins of color. “[Companies] have to understand the structure and function of the skin, the differences in the skin,” says Taylor. “And then from there, you can create.”
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Dr. Valerie Harvey, MD, dermatologist and co-director of the Hampton University Skin of Color Research Institute
Dr. Michelle Henry, MD, the clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College