Does darker skin need different skincare?
Melanin is what gives your skin its uniquely special colour. For the most part, the ingredients and types of products needed to address skin concerns remain the same regardless of skin colour. However, there are some physiological differences to take into consideration for people with darker skin tones or more richly-melanated skin. We’ll highlight some of the distinctions in skincare for darker skin, and also point out which skin treatments are universally effective.
How is melanin-rich skin unique?
The terms “melanin-rich skin” or “skin of colour” cover a wide spectrum of ethnicities and skin tones. Dermatologic practices often use what’s known as the Fitzpatrick Skin Phototype (FST) scale to categorise levels of melanin and how skin responds when exposed to sunlight, starting at FST 1 (very light skin that always burns, never tans) up to FST 6 (the deepest level of melanin-rich skin which naturally provides more built-in sun protection, although you still need sunscreen) (1).
Skin of colour typically refers to those within the 3-6 FST range, but it’s not as simple as that given there are lighter skin tones within populations of Africans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and so many others (2).
Physiological variations among different ethnicities vary depending on the amount of melanin, but some of the most common issues melanin-rich skin may struggle with include:
- Potential for more stubborn hyperpigmentation (spots and uneven tone), as well as more pronounced (raised) scarring (3,4,5,6).
- A propensity for dark circles within certain ethnic groups due to higher melanin content in skin around the eyes (7).
- Lower amounts of ceramides naturally present in skin (the ingredients that keep skin’s surface smooth and hydrated) (3).
- Increased compactness of structural skin elements, which may improve resiliency against environmental stressors, including pollutants (3).
- The degree to which unprotected sun exposure impacts skin (more on that in the sun section) (4).
Spots and uneven tone in skin of colour
This is one of the more widely researched topics for skin of colour with a variety of contributing factors including hormones, skin injury, acne, sun damage, and even the routine buildup of dead skin cells. All of these lead to variances in the depth of uneven skin tone, ashen skin colour, darkening of skin and specific types of stubborn marks.
While this is also an issue for lighter skin, it’s often more difficult to resolve in melanin-rich skin, requiring a combination approach using different ingredients.
In particular, azelaic acid stands out for its ability to target this concern in darker skin, as well as light complexions (4,6). Various types of concentrated vitamin C, arbutin, bakuchiol, retinol, niacinamide, and tranexamic acid also have research to back up their skin-brightening and tone-evening capabilities (8,9,10,11,12). It’s helpful to use more than one of these superstar ingredients, as they work in different ways to target the same concern.
Regardless of how light or dark your skin colour is, sunscreen is essential to ensure the uneven tone doesn’t get worse. Even the best ingredients won’t be able to tackle the issue if you’re not protecting skin from ongoing UV exposure with a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater (12).
Dark circles in skin of colour
Certain ethnicities are more prone to dark undereye circles, and this is a particularly challenging issue to resolve because this is often an inherited trait that goes beyond the realm of what topical skincare products can address (7).
However, there are certain measures you can take to help prevent dark circles from getting worse, regardless of your skin colour. Delve deeper into the top tips for dark circles, and keep in mind that sun protection is essential.
If the dark circles have deepened in colour due to UV exposure, the same types of tone-improving ingredients mentioned above can help.
Acne in skin of colour
When it comes to acne, research indicates that darker skin tones can react somewhat differently to breakouts (particularly in terms of the marks they leave behind), but despite these differences, the gold standard treatment of a gentle cleanser and leave-on products containing salicylic acid remains the same (2,4).
For post-breakout marks, follow the same protocol as discussed in the section on spots and uneven tone above.
Moisturising melanin-rich skin
Ceramides are natural components of skin that help keep it healthily intact by contributing to skin’s protective layer which limits moisture loss. Research shows melanin-rich skin contains lower levels of ceramides; hence it can be more prone to dryness and can take on an ashen appearance when not amply hydrated (3).
When skin lacks the natural substances it needs, skincare can help bridge that gap by replenishing those substances. Moisturisers, serums, and treatment products that are filled to the brim with antioxidants, skin-restoring ingredients, and skin-replenishing ingredients help skin keep a healthy, normal balance of water, while preventing moisture loss.
For facial skin, a moisturiser rich in ceramides is a great solution to directly hydrate, soften, and smooth skin. Additionally, using a blend of non-fragrant, nourishing plant oils, such as almond, argan, borage, coconut, evening primrose, jojoba seed, olive, or safflower oils can make a significant difference.
Sun protection for skin of colour
While melanin-rich skin naturally offers more protection from sun damage than lighter skin, that does not mean sunscreen is optional. Deeper skin tones are at risk for the same cumulative destruction sun exposure causes those with lighter skin tones including increased fine lines and wrinkles… it may just take a little longer to show up (3,4). Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen 365 days a year, rain or shine, is essential for everyone.
When choosing an SPF for darker skin, the trick is finding a sunscreen that provides ample protection without leaving a skin-dulling cast. Innovations in synthetic sunscreen formulas have come a long way with completely clear SPF products that alleviate this issue. Finding a mineral sunscreen (one that contains only titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) that looks imperceptible on skin of colour is more challenging, but generally speaking, sheer-tinted SPF products can be helpful.
In fact, the iron oxide pigments often used to tint mineral sunscreens provide an extra measure of environmental protection, crucial for anyone dealing with skin discolourations.
Side note: research shows that people with a darker skin colour are generally more vitamin D–deficient. This is because the amount of melanin in their skin blocks the sun’s UVB rays enough to inhibit vitamin D production (13). Learn how to get vitamin D without the sun here.
Chemical peels and dermabrasion for darker skin tones
In-office treatments such as chemical peels, some light-emitting treatments, and dermabrasion require careful consideration when it comes to darker skin tones. Dark patches, permanent loss of pigment, and in some cases, scarring, can occur if these procedures are done too aggressively or without proper parameters in place (14). When considering in-office treatments, it’s important to consult with a dermatologist who specialises in this area and has experience with skin of colour.
Gentler superficial peels designed for at-home use are an alternative option that can offer impressive results without more invasive (and costly) procedures. When properly formulated and used as directed, such peels are widely considered safe for all ethnicities.
Use of AHA and BHA exfoliants for darker skin tones
You may have heard that darker skin tones should avoid using chemical exfoliants and especially those that contain AHAs such as glycolic acid and lactic acid. The reason given is because their small molecular size leads to hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones. Extensive checking to confirm this did not turn up a single piece of research which shows this to be true. In fact, research shows that regular use of a well-formulated AHA exfoliant actually helps hyperpigmentation in all skin tones, when used in combination with a daily sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater. What is particularly of note for skin of colour is that including a leave-on AHA or BHA exfoliant in your skincare routine can also address many of the skin concerns which are commonly experienced by darker skin, including uneven skin tone and ashen skin colour.
Universal skincare rules
Studies indicate that minimising irritation is paramount for skin of colour, and research clearly shows that to be true for light skin as well (6). Simply put, inflaming skin is bad for everyone, no matter your skin colour or ethnic background.
As a general rule, that means avoiding the following:
- Fragranced skincare (whether synthetic or natural, including essential oils).
- Harsh, abrasive scrubs and facial cleansing brushes with stiff bristles.
- Bar soaps (they are drying, can clog pores and cause skin to look ashy).
- Irritating ingredients such as menthol, mint, eucalyptus, lemon or SD/denatured alcohol (problematic when listed near the beginning of the ingredient list).
- Anything that pulls or tugs at skin, including the use of tools for facial massage, facial exercises, or wiping makeup off in a way that pushes too hard on skin. All the movement of pulling and pushing at skin breaks down elastin which makes skin sag and look older.
- Once the irritating factors have been eliminated, you can focus on putting together a gentle skincare routine.
- How Sun Protection Factor (SPF) Works
- How antioxidants fight wrinkles
- How to Exfoliate Skin (and Why It's So Important)
References for this information:
- Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, May, 2020, pages 179-184
- Dermatology Times, June 2015, pages 13-14
- Experimental Dermatology, 2009, pages 704-711
- American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, November 2013, pages 7-16
- Dermatology Times, June 2015, pages 13-14
- Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, June 2014, pages 61-65
- Indian Journal of Dermatology, October 2016, pages, 487-495
- The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, July 2017, pages 14-17
- Phytochemistry Letters, September 2015, pages 35-40
- British Journal of Dermatology, February 2019, pages 289-296
- Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, June 2014, pages 311-315
- International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, February 2019, pages 30-36
- Dermatologic Therapy, February 2010, pages 48-60
- Dermatologic Therapy, April 2004, pages 196-205
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