Centuries of racism and colourism have perpetuated a view that white skin is the beauty standard. Today, these racist ideals persist throughout the beauty industry. It’s no surprise then that the skincare industry falls woefully short in having diversity in marketing, understanding the concerns of darker skin tones, and meeting the needs of Black consumers. 

Beyond the beauty industry, white skin persists as the standard for study and treatment in the field of dermatology. As a consequence, the medical community has a record of neglecting darker skin tones in dermatologic research and medical training. This lack of inclusivity in research and training has left doctors unprepared to address the skin concerns of Black patients. 

How skin conditions affect darker skin tones

Melanin is a pigment in the human body that gives rise to skin, hair, and eye colour. Variations in skin colour are determined by the amount and distribution of eumelanin, a type of melanin found in the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin. While tanning can temporarily increase the quantity of eumelanin in the skin, genetics generally define a person’s baseline level. Differing levels of eumelanin result in variations in both skin colour and the presentation of skin conditions. 

A prominent concern among people with darker skin is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This refers to dark and flattened spots that can appear on the body, which are brought on by increased production and accumulation of melanin in skin cells. Although hyperpigmentation can affect anyone, it occurs more often and more severely in people with darker skin. 

Despite the fact that darker skin has specific needs, the skincare industry is failing to put products on the shelves that cater to these needs. In a 2020 article for Well+Good, a digital publication dedicated to reporting on wellness, Miami-based board-certified dermatologist Heather Woolery-Lloyd said that over-the-counter products meant to reduce hyperpigmentation do not work as effectively for people with Black skin because they are designed for and tested on Caucasian skin. 

For instance, arbutin is a key skincare ingredient that targets hyperpigmentation by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in melanin production. A 2005 clinical study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that unlike in white-skinned patients, arbutin only slightly reduced hyperpigmentation in dark-skinned patients. The researchers suggested that darker skin might require prolonged treatment or higher concentrations of arbutin to effectively inhibit tyrosinase.

Like the skincare industry, the medical community has also failed to treat the skincare concerns of people with darker skin. A 2016 study by Sean M. Dawes and colleagues found that although cutaneous melanoma — a type of skin cancer — occurs more often in white individuals, non-white patients are significantly less likely to survive the condition. Numerous medical doctors and researchers have attributed this observation to the fact that physicians are not trained to recognize skin cancer in people with darker skin, so the cancer often goes untreated until its later stages. 

On Black underrepresentation in medicine 

The racial disparities that are clearly visible in the skincare industry and the poor treatment outcomes for Black people can be traced back to one fact: Black people are largely underrepresented in medicine and medical research.

In 2020, despite Black people making up 6.4 per cent of Canada’s population, only 1.7 per cent of medical students identified as Black, according to a study published in the Canadian Medical Education Journal. As of 2020, dermatology is also the second least diverse medical specialty in the US.

A 2021 study by researchers at U of T found that not only was there a lack of representation of skin of colour in the U of T undergraduate medical education curriculum but also U of T medical students were significantly more confident in diagnosing dermatologic conditions in white skin compared to skin of colour. In a 2022 review, researchers at the University of Miami found that in more than half dermatology studies conducted in the US from 2010 to 2020, less than 20 per cent of participants identified as non-white. 

With the lack of diversity in dermatologic research, it’s not hard to see why both the skincare industry and the medical community’s understanding of dermatology is skewed toward white skin. 

In a 2020 thread on X — formerly Twitter — Michael Mackley, a former medical student at Dalhousie University and a current resident physician at U of T, described an interaction where he didn’t know how to recognize changes in a Black patient’s skin. According to Mackley, “This short interaction highlighted for [him] the challenges faced by black patients and other BIPOC who have no choice but to use a healthcare system that was not designed with them in mind.”

Black business owners address the needs of their communities

The beauty industry and medical community have a track record of underrepresenting Black people, even when it comes to skin. However, in the past few decades, the beauty industry has seen a rise in Black business owners creating skincare lines specifically designed to meet the needs of people with darker skin. 

One such business owner is Olamide Olowe, co-founder of Topicals, a science-backed skincare brand designed to work on dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and eczema-prone skin of all types. Last year, in an interview with Vogue, Olowe credited her own struggles with her skin and the lack of medical attention given to darker skin as motivation for founding Topicals. In an interview with Glossy, a media brand exploring changes affecting beauty, fashion, and wellness, Olowe also credited Black skincare communities on Twitter with changing the world of skincare by setting many of the trends that are popular today. 

It’s not hard to see that both the skincare industry and the field of dermatology are systems built entirely around white skin. However, Black business owners and influencers in the skincare industry have started calling attention to the needs of people with darker skin to ensure that they feel represented in skincare marketing; to ensure that the skincare industry begins developing products for darker skin; and to make sure the industry starts to meet the needs of Black consumers.