Taking Care of Skin of Color
The amount of information about skincare that can be found on the internet is practically endless – a Google search for “skincare” produces over half a billion results in less than a second. While there’s a lot of good information out there, and occasionally some bad, most of it takes on a one-size-fits all approach. For example, there’s plenty of advice about taking care of your skin at different stages of your life but none of it really touches on any of the factors that can make our skin unique – such as ethnicity.
People of color, meaning anyone with a non-white heritage, often have somewhat different skin care needs. The increased melanin, which is the pigment that determines the color of our skin, has a much larger role than many people realize. While an increase of melanin offers some protections, it also presents a unique set of challenges that can make it difficult for people of color to find skin care advice that best suits their needs.
Skin that contains a higher degree of melanin has a reputation for aging beautifully, but that doesn’t mean that proper skincare should be neglected. Here are a few tips for taking care of your beautiful skin and preventing some of the most common skin care issues for people of color.
The Role of Melanin
The amount of melanin we’re born with is a genetic component, and by now we’ve all heard the advice that the less you have of it the more you need to protect yourself from sun damage. We hear quite a bit about how a lack of melanin affects the skin, but very little about what happens on a cellular level when there is more of it present.
People with more melanin in their skin do have a level of natural protection against UV damage, although this doesn’t mean that sunscreen is unnecessary – a point we’ll touch on again in a little bit. However, they’re also at a higher risk of experiencing hyperpigmentation from sun exposure.
Melanin also provides some significant anti-aging properties. For example, the protection from UV damage prevents many of the early signs of aging that are often caused by a lifetime of moderate sun exposure. Those first few fine lines, wrinkles and decreased elasticity are often experienced much later in people of color.
There’s also evidence to suggest that skin that is higher in melanin has a higher rate of cellular turnover, which keeps fresh, youthful looking skin cells at the surface and prevents the appearance of dry, lifeless skin.
So far, this doesn’t sound very problematic. However, in addition to being predisposed to hyperpigmentation, skin with higher amounts of melanin often overproduces natural skin oils, which can make skin care a challenge, especially as a person matures and struggles with the back forth of caring for aging skin while combating excess oil at the same time. Additionally, people of color are more prone to developing keloids which can result from even the smallest blemish or nick from shaving.
All of this means something that you probably already know – a dedicated approach to proper skincare can help preserve youthful looking skin while preventing damage that skin of color is uniquely predisposed for.
Use Sunscreen – Everyday
Because darker skin is less likely to burn, many people think that sunscreen is unnecessary and skip it altogether. While your skin may be less likely to burn, that doesn’t mean that all those UV rays aren’t doing any damage. It’s equally important for people with darker complexions to use sunscreen regularly.
Why exactly is sunscreen so important? Let’s start by talking about melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, and generally speaking, fair skinned people are at a significantly increased risk. To put it in perspective, the rate of melanoma among white people is 45.8 diagnoses per 100,000 people. The rate comparatively for people of color is 1.35 diagnoses per 100,000 people. This is a huge difference that illustrates that fair skinned people have a higher risk of developing melanoma. However, it’s also a number that illustrates that melanoma does actually occur in people of color. (Not so fun fact: the great Bob Marley died of melanoma.)
While darker skinned individuals are less likely to get melanoma, they’re unfortunately at a higher risk of being diagnosed at a later stage where the cancer becomes more difficult to treat. The reason for this is the misconception that it doesn’t happen so there is often a significant delay in seeking medical care. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5 year survival rate for melanoma in white people is 93%, however for people of color that number stands at only 69%. Prevention is key.
This means that you should be using a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 anytime you’re outside, and this should also include any time that you’re exposed to sun while inside – such as sitting next to a sunny window or driving in your car.
Sunscreen helps to prevent skin cancer by preventing damage from the sun. This means that sunscreen will also help to prevent hyperpigmentation and damage that can lead to signs of premature aging.
Be Proactive Against Hyperpigmentation
Sunscreen is one way to prevent against hyperpigmentation, but sun exposure isn’t the only cause. Since the more melanin your skin contains, the more likely you are to experience pigmentation issues at least once in your life, it’s important to take a proactive approach to minimizing the chances.
Hyperpigmentation can take multiple forms. One of the most common is melasma, which presents itself as patches of discoloration typically on the forehead, cheeks, nose and chin – if you’ve ever heard of the mask of pregnancy, melasma is what they were referring to. This is due to the fact that melasma is often triggered by hormones, such as those in pregnancy. It can also occur at any other point when a woman is experiencing hormonal fluctuations or using hormonal contraceptives. Other factors, like genetics, can also come into play.
When put this way, it might seem like there’s nothing that can be done, however there are plenty of things you can add to your skincare routine to improve existing hyperpigmentation. For example, including skincare products that include antioxidants like Vitamin C and E or green tea will help your skin repair the damage on a cellular level. Retinol is also an excellent ingredient for lightening mild skin discolorations and evening your skin tone. If you’ve never used a retinol product before, make sure you start with test spot on your skin to assess your level of sensitivity.
Managing Acne and Skin Irritations
Because melanin is related to an increase in oil production, people of color can have a difficult time finding the right balance with their skin care. The excess production of oil is good from an anti-aging standpoint, but not so great when it comes to acne.
It’s extremely important for people with darker skin to invest in a skincare routine that clears away oil and gently exfoliates to minimize the effect that blemishes have on their skin. Acne and other inflammatory skin conditions can leave behind long-lasting hyperpigmentation, and there’s also the risk of developing keloids should the blemishes become irritated.
The key is finding a gentle cleanser that does the job without drying out your skin. Additionally, you should also be exfoliating on a regular basis. Exfoliation helps to prevent acne from forming by removing the layers of dead skin cells that can accumulate on the skin’s surface. It also helps speed up the cell renewal process and treat existing blemishes – but only if it’s gentle.
By exfoliation, we’re not talking about those harsh, gritty formulas. Products that contain “sharp” ingredients like shells or kernels can damage the skin by scratching it, causing irritation and eventually making the issue worse. Instead, choose a gentle enzymatic exfoliant that works only by dissolving the “glue” that’s holding those pesky dead skin cells to the skin’s surface. If your skin is irritated, however, it’s best to wait until the inflammation has subsided before exfoliating.
Use a Moisturizer
Even if your skin is on the oiler side, it’s still important to use a moisturizer that’s formulated for your skin. A gentle, natural moisturizer is good starting point because it will help balance your skin and provide the essential moisture without further irritating your skin.
As you begin to mature, proper moisturization becomes even more important. Look for anti-aging products such as serums that contain anti-oxidants or retinols to keep your skin even toned while keeping the first signs of aging at bay.
Connect with a Dermatologist
We hear all the time about how we should be visiting the doctor for our regular checkup, but it’s surprising how infrequently it’s mentioned that a visit to a dermatologist should be included in your annual self-care.
If you don’t have a dermatologist, now is the time to get one. They are the professionals that can help assess your current skin health and what it needs to become and stay healthy. They’re also there to provide annual skin checks, which are crucially important for detecting all forms of skin cancer early. A dermatologist can address your skin care questions and concerns in a way that a primary care physician isn’t capable of doing.
One thing that is especially important when looking for a dermatologist is finding one that is experienced in working with people of color and their unique skin care. A dermatologist who isn’t experienced might recommend treatments that work well for many of their patients but have the potential of causing problems in people of color. For example, different types of laser are often preferred for use on skin of color for various laser treatments.
Enjoy Your Beautiful Skin
Your skin is one of the most important assets you have, and it’s important to treat it with care and respect. Taking the time to properly care for your skin now will keep in healthy and youthful looking for years to come.