Melanin is what gives your skin its uniquely special colour. For the most part, the ingredients and types of products needed to address skincare concerns remain the same regardless of skin tone. However, there are some physiological differences to take into consideration for people with more richly-melanated skin. We’ll highlight some distinctions for darker skin and 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. Dermatological 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. The scale starts at FST 1 (very light skin that always burns, never tans) and extends up to FST 6 (the deepest level of melanin-rich skin which naturally provides more built-in sun protection, although you still need sunscreen).
Skin of colour typically refers to those within the 3-6 FST range, but it’s not as simple as that, given that there are lighter skin tones within populations of African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and so many others.
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 (dark spots and uneven tone), as well as more pronounced (raised) scarring.
- A propensity for eye bags and dark circles within certain ethnic groups due to higher melanin content in the skin around the eyes.
- Lower amounts of ceramides naturally present in the skin (the ingredients that keep skin’s surface smooth and hydrated).
- Increased compactness of structural skin elements, which may improve resiliency against environmental stressors, including pollutants.
- The degree to which unprotected sun exposure impacts skin (more on that in the sun section).
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 these lead to variances in the depth of uneven skin tone, ashen skin, 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. 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. It’s helpful to incorporate more than one of these superstar ingredients into your skincare routine using relevant products, 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 uneven tones don’t get worse. Even the best skincare products won’t be able to tackle the issue if you’re not protecting your skin from ongoing UV exposure with a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater.
Dark circles in skin of colour
Certain ethnicities are more prone to dark undereye circles and eye bags, and this is a particularly challenging issue to resolve because it is often an inherited trait that goes beyond the realm of what topical skincare products can address.
However, there are certain measures you can take to help prevent dark circles from worsening, regardless of your skin colour. 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). Despite these differences, the gold standard treatment using a gentle facial cleanser and leave-on products containing salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide remains the same.
For leftover breakout marks (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation), follow the same protocol as discussed in the section on spots and uneven tone above.
Moisturizing melanin-rich skin
Ceramides are natural components of skin that help keep it healthily intact by contributing to the 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.
When skin lacks the natural substances it needs, skincare can help bridge that gap by replenishing those substances. Moisturizers, serums, and treatment products that are filled to the brim with antioxidants, skin-restoring ingredients, and skin-replenishing ingredients can help darker skin keep a healthy, normal balance of water, while preventing moisture loss.
For facial skin, a moisturizer 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 in skin texture and hydration.
For the body, a richly emollient cream that provides long-lasting hydration is ideal. Also, swap out drying bar soaps for a gentle, hydrating body wash in your shower routine.
Last but not least, adding a ceramide supplement for the skin can help tackle the issue from the inside out.
Sun protection for skin of colour
While darker 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, although it may just take a little longer to show up. Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen or SPF skincare product 365 days a year, rain or shine, is essential for everyone.
The trick for deeper skin tones is finding a sunscreen that provides ample protection without leaving a skin-dulling white 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 mineral SPF products can be helpful.
The iron oxide pigments often used to tint mineral sunscreens provide an extra measure of environmental protection crucial for anyone dealing with skin discolouration.
Side note: Research shows that people with a darker skin tone 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. Fortunately, there are ways to get vitamin D without the sun, such as through skincare products, supplements, or simple changes in diet.
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. 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 before proceeding with care.
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.
Universal skincare rules
Studies indicate that minimising irritation is paramount for skincare, and research clearly shows that to be true for light skin as well as dark skin . Simply put, inflamed skin is bad for everyone, no matter your skin tone or ethnic background.
As a 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 at the beginning of the ingredient list).
- Anything that pulls or tugs at the skin, including the use of tools for facial massage, facial exercises, or wiping makeup off in a way that pulls too hard on the skin. The movement of 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.
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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