If you’re wondering if whether or not you’ve developed a serious obsession with skincare, chances are you have. But trust me, you’re not alone. It seems as if overnight every American woman ages 18 and up has become completely obsessed with skincare — especially millennial women. We’re obsessed with the latest products, procedures, and only continue to add steps to our daily routines. There’s even a facial for every type of skin made of every ingredient you could think of — seaweed, gold, charcoal, vitamin C, aloe vera, matcha — you name it. Call it “self care” or straight up vanity, but regardless, of how many new treatments or serums come out to lighten dark spots or even out skin tone, I can’t help but feel like women of color are still being ignored when it comes to skincare — black and Latina women especially.
I’ve been working on the beauty side of editorial since the beginning of my career. My days working in the beauty closets of Conde Nast and Time Inc. magazines taught me a thing or two about skincare. I’ve had a pretty committed routine since. My mom introduced me to skincare products —Clinique specifically — when I was only a teenager. Moisturizer with SPF was a must she’d say and so were regular seasonal facials. I’ve been getting facials since I was 17 and they became a pretty regular thing for me by my mid-twenties. I’ve had every kind of facial you could think of at pretty much every reputable spa in NYC you could think of and yet I’ve had more experiences than not where I could tell the esthetician didn’t know wtf to do with brown skin.
“That really hurts,” I remember telling a Russian esthetician this fall after she attempted to extract a so-called pimple she could “tell” was about to surface. “I have dark skin and from experience, painful extractions or picking at new pimples that don’t even have white or blackheads, always results in a dark spot that stays on my face for months. You can leave it,” I told her.
“Don’t worry, I’m an expert. I know what I’m doing,” she said before extracting the crap out of that poor pimple. It hurt so much I remember shouting out the loudest owe! I was also super frustrated that she ignored my request. A few hours later, I was home looking in the mirror only to find the biggest, darkest, scabbiest dark spot I’ve ever had on my face. The following morning I washed my face only to see that the dark spot was, in fact, a fresh new scab. Homegirl had bruised my face. Fast-forward to a few months later, and here I still am with a clear complexion and a small dark spot that has taken months to fade away. A dark spot that could have been avoided if the esthetician would have just listened. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time I’ve experienced a white female esthetician not know how to care for my skin. It’s as if they don’t realize that the skincare needs of someone with a brown complexion are different from that of someone with fairer skin.
“Some dermatologists and skin therapists lack knowledge about skin of color because few have experience working with darker skin types,” says Samantha Mims, a black Holistic Skin Therapist and founder of Dermasaa. “Skin color is very particular and should be treated as such. Although the skin may be thicker and appear less fragile, that’s not always the case. A thorough analysis will allow the expert to know how and what to treat the skin with.”
The facial nightmare happened sometime in November and then in late December I found myself growing impatient — regarding my dark spot — so I got myself a glycolic acid cleanser and dark spot toner with hopes it would finally fade away. What a mistake that was. Turns out my skin is actually WAY more sensitive than it is oily or acne prone, so the next morning I woke up with red bumps all over my face. The only thing that calmed it down was cleansing my face for days with organic, raw honey. After my skin finally calmed, I decided to make an appointment the first week of January with a dermatologist — but this time I made sure my dermatologist was a woman of color.
My derm told me that the breakouts I was suddenly experiencing were probably due to hormonal changes — since I told her I had changed birth control pills a few times within the last few months. She prescribed me Spironolactone, an oral pill used specifically to target hormonal breakouts in women. Within a week, all my breakouts cleared up. We’re going into February and I haven’t had a single new breakout since. My skin hasn’t been this clear since late last spring before I started switching birth control pills like crazy. She also agreed that my skin was fairly sensitive, with a bit of mild rosacea on my cheeks and said I had to stay away from skincare products with harsh or very strong ingredients, as they could easily irritate my skin, so we avoided any topical acne treatments — which was such a good call.
She said we’d addressed the dark spots at our follow up appointment — which is actually a week from today — based on how I responded to the pill. But did recommend gentle serums with vitamin C& E. Earlier this week I started using the Renée Rouleau Vitamin C & E Treatment during the day to help fade my dark spot and the Renée Rouleau Redness Care Firming Serum at night to calm my rosacea and I’m already noticing a difference — believe it or not. My skin is glowy, my dark spot is finally starting to fade, and the redness on my cheeks is gradually going away. I’m finally getting my face back (see the proof in my current picture below) and it’s because a black dermatologist took the time to really evaluate my skin, understand my specific needs, and actually listen to my concerns.
There are a lot of misconceptions around dark skin. A lot of skincare experts that don’t understand darker skin tend to think it’s stronger and less prone to sensitivity or irritation.
“Darker skin is sometimes oiler but it’s actually a bit more sensitive than others,” says Lakeisha Dale, a black makeup artist and licensed esthetician whose aim is to celebrate black women through beauty. “Hyperpigmentation is the big one. I also have noticed that most women with dark skin tend to think that they have an oily skin type. So they use a lot of products that dry out their skin, which leaves them more susceptible to irritation, contact dermatitis, and open comedones. Reactions are harder to see on darker skin [depending on the skin tone] but the intensity [is just as similar as] those with lighter skin.
This would explain the whole philosophy around “black don’t crack.” Some of the reasons behind why it’s believed that black women and women of color with darker skin age best, is because of the large amounts of melanin in our skin and because darker skin typically tends to have higher oil content that keeps our skin looking smooth, hydrated, and plump — lucky us!
More products than ever now target hyperpigmentation and dark spots — something that affects women of color with darker complexions more than anyone else — but not all skin care experts understand what causes them or how to properly treat them.
Hyperpigmentation is extremely common for women of color and it’s something we can get from anything from post-breakouts to aggressive chemical peels, lasers, facials, and even products. But what is actually happening to our skin when we experience hyperpigmentation?
“Pigment cells (melanocytes) have a unique arrangement and distribution in the skin in persons with skin of color. They have significantly greater amounts [of] specific types of pigment (ig: eumelanin) and the pigment cells are much more reactive to outside stimuli,” says NYC-based Dermatologist, Dr. Fran E. Cook-Bolden. “So when the sun is intense or there is trauma to the skin — watch out, here comes the healing with discoloration.”
“Any process, whether it be an inflammatory medical condition such as acne or eczema or a non-medical procedure, such as lasers, chemical peels, micro-needling, or even products for skincare, OTC daily use or prescriptions, can stimulate a reaction resulting in inflammation then turning on the pigment cells,” she adds. “Remember, the pigment cells in persons with skin of color are highly reactive, sometimes to even the slightest stimulus. If this is the case, many are classified as having sensitive or reactive skin.”
Dr. Cook-Bolden says there are few things a physical or skincare expert should do when approaching a patient or client with darker skin. “It is very important to do a thorough medical history and aesthetic history and include ethnic background, history of past reactions to surgical, medical, and cosmetic procedures. Less is more,” she says. “Keeping the treatment plan to the one that is as simple as possible that will achieve the goals in mind is always the best.”
How do you know if your skin care expert actually understands how to treat your skin? Mims claims you’ll be able to pick it up pretty early on.
“It’s easy to differentiate a good skin therapist or a dermatologist from a bad specialist by the questions asked during a consultation and how well they’re able to educate the client during their treatment. No one should walk away feeling confused or uneducated on how to move forward with their home maintenance. Those things are important to look for in a skin therapist, especially as a person of color,” she says. “When I’m dealing with darker skin types or all skin types for that matter, I always ask questions in regards to their lifestyle, any existing skincare routine, and most importantly their concerns. Once I collect that information, I’m able to conjure up a treatment in my mind of what is best for their skin, in that moment.”
As for skincare products and treatments, Dr. Cook-Bolden says that some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding dark skin are that we can’t get laser treatments, that we all react the same to procedures, or that our skin reacts no different from white skin. She calls the latter a particularly dangerous misconception. We can have laser treatments done and we can use dark spot treatments and brightening serums, but it’s about finding the right ones for our specific skin needs and finding an expert who understands and respects that. She advises me that there are a ton of products that target dark hyperpigmentation and dark spots even for WOC with more sensitive skin like myself.
“There are an array of different levels of products and procedures that can be done on sensitive skin. Again, a skilled provider will be knowledgeable enough to make the appropriate adjustments,” she says. “What’s wonderful about this, is that now we don’t have to say no to all lasers, peels, etc. like we did at one time. Technology and science has advanced to the level to be able to accommodate more sensitive skin and skin of color.”
Regardless of if your skincare expert is a WOC or not, definitely make sure to tell them a bit about your background, your ethnicity, your skin type, your skin concerns, and how your skin reacts to treatments and products. Dale claims that a good esthetician will do a detailed client consultation and start off slow to see how the skin reacts.
“When I was working as an esthetician recently, I liked to start with gentler products then work our way up to stronger ingredients, mainly in regards to the type of exfoliations and treatments,” she says. “When consulting with clients, I would ask about their lifestyle, do they travel a lot? Work late hours? Their experience with keeping a regimen, have they been consistent or not? How is their health and wellness, what is your diet like? How are your stress levels? What ingredients are they familiar with? And last but not least, what kind of products have they been using. Investigate, that’s how you tailor your approach. Not all skin should be treated the same.”
I’ve only had two bad facials — but both of them were nightmarish and all due to a white woman not listening to my particular needs, so I was starting to feel a lot of anxiety around visiting derms and getting spa facials. While my fears were definitely valid, making the switch to a WOC derm and speaking to these brilliant ladies definitely makes me feel like I have the knowledge and the tools I need now to make sure my skin is being cared for properly. If you’re a WOC looking for a derm or about to book a facial, I highly recommend not just researching the spa or medical office, but researching the particular physician or esthetician you’re going to see and finding out how experienced they are with brown skin before moving forward. Look out for the red flags and remember that you deserve someone who is not only educated in brown skin but will treat it with the gentleness and attention that beautiful melanin of yours deserves!