Dermatologists are sometimes fond of saying that “skin is skin”—meaning that skin issues don’t discriminate based on factors like skin color or gender. And while it’s true that skin conditions, like acne and psoriasis, can occur in all skin tones, they can manifest and affect people with darker skin in different ways (and sometimes more often). Furthermore, the way these issues are treated may differ based on skin tone since some products may react differently on darker skin tones.
How skin conditions manifest and how products react has a lot to do with how much pigment is in your skin. “Pigment cells are very sensitive to chemicals, temperature, dryness, and inflammation,” says dermatologist Lynn McKinley-Grant, M.D., “which is where a lot of the product sensitivity can come from.” And when pigment cells come in contact with inflammation or harsh chemicals, issues like hyperpigmentation (dark spots) can arise, which is why hyperpigmentation is one of the most common skin complaints among people of color.
Specially-Formulated Skincare Products Can Help
Skincare and treatment is never one-size-fits-all, no matter what companies try to tell you, and that’s especially apparent when talking about skincare for darker skin tones. There is a significant lack of education and testing when it comes to skincare for dark skin, even among companies that already make products that work well and are dermatologist recommended. “Shame on them for not marketing to and realizing the value of Black people and having people on the team to highlight the importance of getting the word out to them,” says dermatologist Corey Hartman, M.D.
To fill this void, new brands specifically targeting men of color are on the rise, many of them with Black founders themselves, with the goal of not only addressing the specific problems these men face, but also educating and making it easier to find products that are less likely to hurt their skin. Brands like Bevel and Scotch Porter, which are now mainstays among men of all skin tones but originally developed for men of color, are now joined by a new crop, like Ceylon, a skincare company founded by Patrick Boateng when he tried and failed to find mainstream skincare that worked for his personal issues with hyperpigmentation and acne.
From Boetang’s point of view, it’s essential that skincare products for men of color avoid harsh chemicals which may lead to inflammation or pigment changes, even if they’re commonly found in other skincare products. Ceylon’s products, in many ways, are more about what is left out of them than what are added to them. “Our approach is to go gentle,” he says.
But Beware The Hype Machine
While companies are making strides to speak to and educate men of color about skincare, beware of “hype and marketing,” says Dr. Hartman, warning that just because a product says it was developed for darker skin doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. The most important element, sometimes even beyond the ingredient list, is that the product has been actually tested on a variety of skin tones. “Manufacturers should call out whether it’s been tested on a certain demographic,” says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson. But the testing process is hard to understand without personal research. That may be one advantage of brands developed by and for men of color – theoretically they’ve done this research for you.
The bottom line is that even though “skin is skin,” there are specific issues men of color face more frequently than those with lighter skin tones. That makes looking for products specifically developed to treat those issues essential and while looking for brands that cater to men of color could take out some of the guesswork, it doesn’t automatically make them right for you. Addressing the issues themselves is most important. These are the most common skin issues men of color face and how to find products that will address them.
5 Skin Issues Men of Color Can Experience
Ingrown Hairs and Razor Bumps
“The biggest thing Black men deal with more than others is razor bumps and shaving irritation,” says Dr. Hartman. “It’s inherent because of the curly texture of the hair.” The curlier the hair, the more likely it is to get caught under the skin as it grows, which makes the body “attack it as something foreign,” he says. The ensuing inflammation is what causes bumps and irritation on the surface.
The most effective way to treat razor bumps is prevent them from happening in the first place with proper shaving practices. “Don’t go over the same area multiple times, especially with multi-blade razors, because you’ll end up cutting the hair shorter till it retracts into the skin,” says Dr. Hartman. Always shave in the direction the hair grows and don’t shave too quickly. Try to avoid shaving every day and do it only as often as you need to. “The hair needs to grow out a little bit,” says Dr. McKinley-Grant.
To treat razor bumps you already have and prevent new ones from popping up, use gentle exfoliating acids like salicylic and glycolic acids. They help release the hair from underneath the skin as well as make it easier for new hairs to grow out without getting trapped. For dark skin particularly, “you don’t need a high concentration of acid,” says Dr. Hartman. He recommends looking for a toner with about 2% salicylic or glycolic acid and starting slow (once or twice a week) and then increasing frequency if needed.
Dark spots, also known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, can show up in any skin tone, but are more common in darker skin because of the higher melanin content. “When you disrupt the skin after damage, melanin is released out of the cell,” says Dr. Hartman. The more melanin in the skin, the more likely it is that dark spots can occur. That damage can come from a variety of things, according to Robinson, like acne, ingrown hairs, sun damage, and even some skincare ingredients.
The best way to avoid dark spots showing up is to avoid inflammation in general, says Dr. McKinley-Grant. Admittedly, that’s difficult, especially in cases like chronic acne. But that’s where gentle products with low levels of active ingredients are ideal for men with darker skin tones. That goes for treating issues that could eventually lead to hyperpigmentation and also for treating the dark spots themselves.
“Retinol and alpha hydroxy acids are really going to impact and even out skin,” says Dr. Hartman. They’ll help to exfoliate dead skin, smooth out skin texture, and even out tone. Vitamin C and other antioxidants may also help, but not as a one and done. Dr. Hartman recommends using vitamin C in combination with other products that specifically target dark marks. Another ingredient, hydroquinone, is somewhat controversial. “It’s been around forever,” he says, and has proven abilities to lighten dark spots, but not always without side effects (Boateng is not a fan). It’s always best to speak to a dermatologist first before trying a product that contains hydroquinone.
“Men in general tend to have oilier, thicker skin,” says Robinson, and in men of color it can be even thicker and more oil rich. In some ways, it’s a benefit, especially when it comes to anti-aging. “We don’t really get saggy skin because our skin is thicker to begin with and doesn’t get thin,” says Dr. Hartman. But the higher amount of oil can lead to issues like acne and breakouts.
The impulse when dealing with oily skin is to use harsh astringents, like witch hazel or alcohol, to try to dry it out, but that’s exactly what you don’t want to do, according to Dr. Hartman. Drying out skin will actually make it produce more oil. Instead, “a nice oil-free serum moisturizer helps to keep your skin in homeostasis,” he advises. Using a lightweight moisturizer with hyaluronic acid will help skin stay hydrated without causing oil production to go off the charts.
Classic acne-fighting ingredients, like salicylic acid, can help control the pimples and breakouts that are a side effect of oiliness, but men of color should be wary of benzoyl peroxide. “It’s known to be an irritant and can cause contact dermatitis in a higher percentage of Black people,” warns Dr. Hartman. While it is still effective in treating acne, he recommends using a cleanser that contains benzoyl peroxide and never as a leave-on treatment that could cause irritation.
Inflammation may lead to dark spots, but it can also manifest in skin in other ways like sensitivity and allergic reactions. Knowing if your skin is sensitive or you’re having a reaction to a product isn’t always so obvious. In lighter skin tones, “you get redness in the skin,” says Dr. McKinley-Grant, “but in Black and brown skin it’s not the same. It’s not bright red, you get more of a purple color.”
Figuring out if your skin is having a reaction to a product can be tricky, but those with sensitive skin may want to err on the side of caution and avoid added chemicals and certain preservatives. Robinson also recommends looking for specific ingredients that are anti-inflammatory like green tea, vitamin E, and aloe, which he says help soothe the skin and decrease possible inflammation. “There are generally few reactions to things like lavender and tea tree oil,” Dr. McKinley-Grant adds, who recommends looking for products that are specifically designed to be gentle, soothing and fragrance-free.
It’s true that “Black people in general have more inherent protection from the sun because of our melanin,” says Dr. Hartman, but it’s not enough to go without sunscreen…ever. “Yes, you’re not going to burn as easily, but you’re not going to optimize your protection unless you add to it.” Sun damage has been linked to a variety of skin issues in addition to skin cancer and, especially in people of color, dark spots. Wearing sunscreen can help prevent signs of aging and rosacea as well.
The problem with many sunscreens, especially the physical sunscreens that dermatologists generally recommend, which use minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to shield the skin from UV rays, is that they tend to leave a white or chalky cast on dark skin tones. Dr. Hartman himself has tested hundreds that claim to not leave a cast on dark skin tones and don’t deliver. Using a clear or tinted option may help solve that issue. Apply it every morning before leaving the house and if you can, reapply it during the day. Always go for a screen that is broad spectrum with a minimum of SPF 30.
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