As a Woman of Color, I’ve often struggled not only with finding foundation and color cosmetics that match my skin and its undertones, but also with finding the right skincare for the one condition that affects Black and Brown people the most: hyperpigmentation. Folks of any complexion can experience hyperpigmentation, as anatomically all skin is the same. We all have the same types of dermal layers, pores, blood vessels, and glands. However, there is one small and very obvious way that our skin differs, and that is in pigment.
Skin color is determined by the presence of melanin, a pigment made by cells called melanocytes. Contrary to popular belief, we all have the same number of these cells, but depending on where we are from geographically and genetically, these cells make more melanin for some of us versus others. Darker skin is still prone to hyperpigmentation and needs all of the protection that fairer skin tones warrant.
Hyperpigmentation happens when cells produce too much melanin at one time, causing what we commonly call a dark spot or a blemish. So, why does this happen, and why does it happen more frequently in darker skin-toned people? Surprisingly, it all leads back to one of two things: hormones or inflammation. Hyperpigmentation can happen when our hormones are out of whack due to pregnancy, changes in birth control, or even menopause. Changes in skin pigment due to these causes frequently show up on our skin in larger brown patches, or in a “mask-like” formation and should be addressed by your medical doctor.
However, most of the dark spots that we seek to correct with skincare products are caused by inflammation and cause Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation, or PIH. Have you ever bought a bag of fruit and one random apple slips out of the bag and bounces onto the floor? Though said apple is now slightly dented, you place it in the bowl with others. A day later, you may notice that the apple has a bruise or a brown spot around the dent? This inflammation is its response to trauma. Our skin responds much in the same way.
Any “trigger” to darker skin, even the seemingly innocent ones–which can include exfoliation, acne, waxing, or shaving—can cause melanocytes to overproduce skin pigment (melanin), causing a dark spot. So, what can we do about this? First, we can debunk a few myths about hyperpigmentation and Brown skin.
1. Dark skin is less sensitive than fair skin
You may have already guessed after reading the above that this is false. Though fair skin can easily reveal any irritation or changes due to its lighter pigment, dark skin can mask irritation and have more visible and prolonged reactions to irritants and trauma.
Therefore, it is important that skincare regimens for Black and Brown skin contain calming and soothing ingredients to prevent irritation, thus the overproduction of melanin. Even during exfoliation, it’s important to be sure that manual or scrub exfoliants are not harsh and exfoliating agents, such as acids, are not irritating.
2. Dark skin tones can’t use peels
This myth is a tricky one! Black and Brown skin tones have long been warned against laser treatments, and rightfully so. Early lasers and those used for hair removal were designed to find and zap pigment in the skin, preventing them from being an option for deeper skin tones. However, there have been a number of new developments in this space including, the invention of Pico Lasers, which can work on various skin tones!
Peels have long been a go-to for lightening and brightening dark marks left by acne or sun damage; however, if you recall, inflammation can be caused by irritation, which means that things like strong acids can actually cause more harm than good. It is important to make sure that the peel you choose does not contain an acid that you may be allergic to. Peels tend to have varying strengths, from lighter strengths that you can perform at home to deeper peels that only a dermatologist should perform. If opting for a medium to deep peel, it is recommended that you have it performed by a professional who understands darker skin tones and your unique needs.
3. Thinking acne is not the culprit
I rarely break out, but when I do, whether I squeeze my pesky pimple or not, it almost always leaves a dark mark. This is because acne is, by definition, the occurrence of inflamed or infected oil glands in the skin. So, the best way to counteract dark spots from acne is to prevent them.
Use a clarifying cleanser to keep your face free of bacteria and your pores decongested, especially if you’re oily. This is an important step in preventing breakouts from happening in the first place. Unfortunately, once the irritation has happened and the pimple has erupted, it can be days to weeks before that dark mark makes its exit.
4. Using lightening products will help
Unless you’ve lived under a rock, you may have heard that many of the lightening products used by our moms and grandmothers have actually not only caused skin damage, but may have caused some serious side effects due to toxic ingredients that went under the radar for many years. In addition, society has begun to address the use of these products as they have historically promoted colorism in certain cultures.
I personally am glad to see this conversation at the forefront of the beauty industry favoring safety and inclusivity in skincare. That said, lightening products can indeed still be the solution if you take the time to vet ingredients to ensure their safety. Ingredients such as licorice root, kojic acid, and skin superhero vitamin C are all great options for safely lightening and brightening dark spots.
5. Thinking you don’t need sunscreen
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the biggest myth of them all! Yes, we the Brown people have more melanin, but our melanin isn’t stronger than the sun.
The biggest culprit of hyperpigmentation is UV exposure from the sun. Though Black people have lower rates for skin cancer, we have higher rates of dying from it, as we typically will go undiagnosed for a longer period of time. Therefore, it is important for all skin tones to wear sunscreen each and every day, even in the winter or when it’s cloudy out. In addition, if you are using products to lighten PIH, your skin may actually be more sensitive to the sun, and you may be undoing all the correcting effects of your regimen by exposing your skin to UV harm.
Lastly, I have experienced the common complaint of “ashy” or “gray” skin after an SPF application. Luckily for us, given the current heightened visibility of the beauty industry in addressing melanated skin, we are now seeing new brands that have launched expressly to address these concerns. One such company, Black Girl Sunscreen, manufactures SPF products with no white cast or residue.