“Their skin drips the melanin, it absorbs the sun rays too, their hairs are graciously curly, aren’t they magical human beings?” –C. Vais Hnawi Rao
From the lightest to the darkest skin tones, Black individuals have exquisitely beautiful skin enriched with melanin pigment. In celebration of Black History Month, we’ll dive into what melanin is, why it’s so important for the skin, and how to care for melanin-rich skin. But first, let’s take a look at the milestone of celebrating Black History Month.
A Brief Look At Black History Month
“I look at my skin and it is glowing with constellations of ancestors. I ask them about escape and freedom and listen for revelation.” -Junauda Petrus, “The Stars and the Blackness Between Them”
Black History Month’s first iteration was Negro History Week, created in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, known as the “father of Black history.” This historian helped establish the field of African American studies and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, aimed to encourage “people of all ethnic and social backgrounds to discuss the Black experience”.
February was chosen by Woodson for the week-long observance as it coincides with the birthdates of former US President Abraham Lincoln and social reformer Frederick Douglass. Woodson understood that members of the Black community already celebrated the births of Douglass and Lincoln due to the two men’s help in ending slavery, so he sought to build on existing traditions.1
By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the civil rights movement and a growing awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week was celebrated by mayors in cities across the country. Eventually, the event evolved into Black History Month.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. In his speech, President Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
Since his administration, every American president has recognized Black History Month and its mission. But it wasn’t until Congress passed “National Black History Month” into law in 1986 that many in the country began to observe it formally.
Initially, Black History Month was a way of teaching students and young people about Black and African-American contributions. Today, though, the month-long spotlight during February is an opportunity for people to engage with Black history, go beyond discussions of racism and slavery, and highlight Black leaders and accomplishments.
To learn more about Black History Month and how you can celebrate, click here.
Pictured: Carter G. Woodson Source: The Huntington
“I am dripping melanin and honey. I am black without apology.” -Upile
Skin color is determined by a pigment called melanin. And while melanin exists in all shades of skin, it is present in different forms and ratios. The two forms of melanin that contribute to pigmentation in the hair, skin, and eyes of humans and animals are eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin creates black and brown skin tones, while pheomelanin produces reddish-brown tones, as seen in those with red hair and freckled skin.
A third type of melanin, called neuromelanin, exists within the human brain but doesn’t provide pigmentation for human features. This type of melanin has primarily been studied for its connection to Parkinson’s disease.2
Melanin production begins in large cells called melanocytes, which can be found all over the body. Melanocytes are responsible for producing organelles called melanosomes. Melanosomes produce both eumelanin and pheomelanin which are then distributed to a variety of cells, including keratinocytes (skin cells).
Source: News Medical
The Benefits of Melanin
“You have to make melanin while the sun shines.” -Kim Harrison
Melanin-rich skin is unique at a biological level, which makes it special beyond just the surface. Here are some intriguing facts about melanin.
Melanin Provides Protection
Exposure to the sun has the potential to cause premature aging of the skin as well as various skin cancers. These range in severity from basal cell carcinoma to melanoma. The ability to withstand the potentially damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation depends on the amount of melanin in the skin, which is determined by the number of melanocytes that are active beneath the surface of skin.
In even the most light-skinned people, the body’s melanocytes respond to sun exposure by producing more melanin, resulting in a tanned skin tone. However, there is a limit to the degree of protection that melanin can provide, with protection being significantly higher in naturally darker skin.
Melanin Prevents Premature Skin Aging
Dermatologist Susan C. Taylor, author of “Brown Skin,” points out that African-Americans and other people of color generally look younger than their lighter-skinned peers because of the higher levels of melanin in their skin. The increased melanin bolsters skin’s resistance to age spots, deep wrinkles, and rough texture.3
Melanin Possesses Antioxidant Properties
Melanin works as an antioxidant by neutralizing free radicals and working as a barrier for your skin. Free radicals have been implicated as the cause of widespread damage to human cells. Sergio Nacht, a principal in the skincare consulting firm of Riley-Nacht LLC, touches on how melanin fights free-radical damage: “It affects the delicately designed lipids that hold moisture in the stratum corneum, which is the outermost layer of the epidermis. If the skin loses its moisture, it becomes rigid and cracks.”4
Common Conditions of Melanin-Rich Skin
“We aren’t beautiful in spite of our Blackness, we are beautiful because of it. So don’t dare try to give the credit to anything else.” -Shayla Pierce
Certain skin conditions are more prevalent among darker skin tones than lighter skin tones:
When the skin produces pigment unevenly, dark spots, or hyperpigmentation, can appear. Melanin-rich skin has a higher tendency to show hyperpigmentation.
Among the most common types of pigment occurrences in dark skin is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), which is a result of skin injuries, such as cuts, scrapes, or burns. However, it can also occur in conjunction with eczema or acne.
If you have sensitive skin, you may see pigmentation irregularities more commonly. In fact, any skincare product ingredient that irritates or dries skin can cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This can develop within one to two weeks after the discontinued use of an irritating product.
Pictured: Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation Source: Global News
Acne can occur in any skin tone and type, but due to its link with hyperpigmentation and pore size, it is of enhanced likelihood among people with darker skin tones. Individuals with melanin-rich skin generally have larger pores than those with fairer skin. This can lead to follicle oil mixing with bacteria, which then can result in blocked pores, causing inflammation just under the skin. This inflammation is what creates lesions (acne) that can appear as anything from small discreet bumps to large cysts.
Acne, along with many medications to treat acne, can lead to pigmentation problems in darker skin. This is also true of certain oral antibiotics, particularly minocycline. Early management can help mitigate the appearance of pigmentation scars due to acne.
Pictured: Acne Source: Cerave
If you’ve suffered from a cut, burn, or any other injury, you may have seen a keloid develop, which is a scar that spreads beyond the boundary of the original injury and develops into a growth. The most common locations of keloids are the earlobes, chest, back, and arms. While they can develop immediately after an injury, they can also take months or even years to grow.
Though no one is certain why keloids develop, they are thought to be linked to a defect in collagen production. Treatments include cortisone injections, radiation therapy, pressure dressings, and silicone gel applications. Regardless of the treatment, keloids often return between 45% and 100% of the time.
Pictured: Keloids Source: Daily Mail
Skin showing vitiligo has noticeable depigmented areas. This loss of color causes large, white patches to appear. Vitiligo occurs in up to 2% of the population but is most noticeable among those with darker skin tones. Vitiligo is thought to develop when melanin-producing cells are damaged, though scientists and doctors are uncertain why this happens.
Vitiligo is often treated with the topical eczema ointment known as tacrolimus. When applied to the skin twice daily, research shows that normal pigmentation may return, but it could take months to see a difference. Another approach to treating vitiligo is the use of strong steroid creams, which can be effective if used on certain areas of the body such as the face and neck.
Pictured: Model Winnie Harlow showing vitiligo Source: Global Health and Pharma
Caring For Melanin-Rich Skin
“My skin absorbs the sun rays and my hair defies gravity. You can’t tell me I’m not magical.” -Unknown
There are optimal ways to care for melanin-rich skin to keep it looking fresh and radiant:
Choose Products For Your Skin Type
No matter what your skin tone, it’s always important to choose products made for your skin type. If you tend to be more oily, using a facial cleanser and moisturizer made to lend a balancing feel with lightweight moisture should help visibly improve acne breakouts. Your skin needs natural oils, so avoid soaps that leave skin with a “squeaky” feel.
Be Gentle When Using Exfoliating Products
Melanin-rich skin requires more TLC when exfoliating. When your skin is abraded by rougher products, it can respond by producing more melanin to protect that area of skin, which can lead to hyperpigmentation.
An exfoliating mask with active enzymes can be a great and gentle solution to decongest pores while also discouraging breakouts. Enzymes help remove dead skin cells but are not as aggressive as acidic peels made from lactic or glycolic acid.
Hydrating Skincare Products Are Your Friend
Studies show that melanin-rich skin can be subject to a higher rate of transepidermal water loss than lighter skin.5 Skincare containing ingredients to help manage hydration can help avoid both breakouts and the ashiness that can result from surface skin dryness.
Not all skincare products are designed to help skin hold hydration or provide the nutrients the skin needs to maintain its protective barrier. Try looking for products that are curated with ingredients like natural butters, oils, and humectants to help deliver and lock in moisture.
Be Aware of Ingredients
Ingredients matter, and knowing what’s in the products you decide to use is highly important. If your skin shows hyperpigmentation, for example, try to steer clear of risky ingredients like hydroquinone. Hydroquinone can cause damage to the DNA of cells and can accumulate in the body when used daily. It can also lead to a condition known as ochronosis, which is where the skin develops blemishes and blue-black pigmentation.
When looking to even out the look of hyperpigmentation, you can try using natural brightening ingredients that even out the skin’s appearance without irritating the skin, such as stabilized Vitamin C, liquorice root, and niacinamide.
A few other melanin-loving ingredients are:
- Mandelic Acid: As an alpha-hydroxy acid and a natural, non-irritating melanin inhibitor derived from bitter almonds, this ingredient can slough off dead skin, fight acne, and give the skin a beautiful, even glow.
- SPF: All skin needs SPF to help protect it from the sun’s damaging rays. If you’re having a hard time finding one you feel comfortable wearing every day, try asking your dermatologist for recommendations.
- Vitamin E: Along with mandelic acid and SPF, antioxidants, such as Vitamin E, help stop the damage from environmental stressors before it starts and should be used every morning under your SPF.
Melanin-Friendly Skincare Companies to Know About
“Our melanin will always make us marvelous. Just imagine what that sea of sisterhood would look like. Magic!” -Alexandra Elle
It can be intimidating to try and figure out what will work best for your complexion when beauty shelves are filled with so many skincare products. Yet somehow, deeper skin tones often find themselves left out with limited selections of skincare brands and products created for people of color.
Aiming to fill the void, there are a handful of companies popping up with melanin care in mind, such as:
Darker Skin Tones By Strum Skin Care
When Dr. Barbara Strum, MD & actress Angela Bassett teamed up, the Darker Skin Tones brand was born. The brand promises to only use advanced science-backed ingredients that are healthy, healing, and safe. Its products are made under the notion that skin with more active melanocytes requires additional ingredient science to help even skin tone, reduce sebum, and provide skin with a healthy, radiant glow. A few of the ingredients used within Darker Skin Tones products include Vitamin C, enzymes, and hyaluronic acid to combat hyperpigmentation, refine pores, and even skin tone.
You can visit Sturm’s Darker Skin Tones website here.
The Afro Hair & Skin Co.
The Afro Hair & Skin Co. is an award-winning afro beauty and wellness business located along the English coast. The brand is dedicated to creating truly organic and natural products carefully crafted by hand, using fresh, natural, and locally sourced ingredients. The Afro Hair & Skin Co. makes sure to source the finest quality sustainable ingredients that are also certified organic and Fairtrade Certified. The brand specialises in providing high-quality green beauty options to meet the unique needs of afro-textured hair in all its forms as well as skincare that addresses some of the concerns that come with having melanin-rich skin.
You can visit The Afro Hair & Skin Co.’s website here.
Unsun Cosmetics was founded by Katonya Breaux, the mother of singer-songwriter Frank Ocean, in 2016, after being frustrated by the lack of options within the world of clean sunscreen products for women of color. Unsun Cosmetics was created to provide clean, no-residue options that are kind to the person using it as well as the environment it’s being used in. Derived from natural ingredients like shea butter, vitamin E, and coconut oil, Unsun Cosmetics’ products provide soothing hydration while offering high levels of SPF for exceptional sun protection.
You can visit the Unsun Cosmetics website here.
In the summer of 2018, Esi Eggleston-Bracey and Sarah Irby, beauty industry pioneers and leaders at Unilever, called out the lack of skincare specific to women of color. This kicked off a collaborative team of Unilever scientists, dermatologists of color, and real people in the community to develop a brand to promote and protect the beauty of melanin-rich skin. MELÉ was born from the unique belief that melanin-rich skin should always be a priority, and never an afterthought. Backed by science and made with ingredients that nourish, enhance and protect the beauty of melanin-rich skin, MELÉ is a brand that doesn’t just push product, but pushes for change in the skincare industry.
You can visit MELE’s website here.
Humanist Beauty was founded by Jennifer Norman, an author and beauty industry guru. She has dedicated years of her life to promoting and celebrating diversity, inclusivity, and sustainability while pursuing the belief that better beauty brands can exist. Humanist Beauty makes it a priority to be transparent about every ingredient used within its products by disclosing them on its website through an Ingredient Glossary. Humanist Beauty produces products that work for all skin types and skin tones. The brand has the belief that everyone is beautiful, and the most important part of being your most gorgeous self is embracing YOU.
You can view Humanist Beauty’s website here.