There's no questioning the exponential growth of the skincare industry over the last decade. As editors, we see this shift in action every morning when we open our inboxes to find an utterly oppressive flurry of pitches touting the latest celeb-backed product lines, but even a quick scroll of your Instagram feed these days will turn up just as many images of face mask clad influencers as expertly art-directed outfit pics. Skin is most definitely in, and participating in skincare now means you need near-encyclopedic knowledge of acids, vitamins, and oils.
In the midst of all this growth, information, and innovation, there's still a lot of confusion surrounding the specific skincare needs of women with higher levels of melanin in their skin. This is due in large part to vague and often incorrect catchall skincare terms like "suitable for all skin types," which still routinely discounts the needs of anyone outside the extremely Anglo control group to which skincare has always catered. But there's really no reason every single human who has the desire shouldn't be able to partake in a well-vetted skincare treat, and it's our goal to continue demystifying skincare for everyone.
To help women of color on their way to complete skincare literacy, we assembled a dream team of dermatologists to run through the ingredients that best serve the nuances of those with gloriously melanated skin. We tapped Chaneve Jeanniton, MD, ocular plastic surgeon and founder of Epi.Logic skincare; Purvisha Patel, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare; and Tanuj Nakra, MD, board-certified cosmetic surgeon and co-founder of Avya Skincare, who gave us their hit lists of the best ingredients that tan, brown, and black women should be prioritizing. Read on for the expert intel.
The Most Common Skin Concerns for WOC
According to Jeanniton, WOC are commonly charged with caring for some specific skin conditions. "My approach to skincare for women of color has two priorities: optimizing skin health and keeping hyperpigmentation at bay," she says. "Physiologically speaking, the skin needs of women of color are the same as anyone else: UV protection, reduction of oxidative stress, preservation of a healthy skin barrier and encouragement of cell renewal. But because of a heightened sensitivity to inflammation, issues of hyperpigmentation factor prominently into the considerations for this group."
Sounds familiar, right? Hyperpigmentation is likely the first skincare term you ever learned. "It can take a significant amount of time to restore the skin barrier once compromised. Given that skin of color can easily become sensitized and respond to insult with stubborn hyperpigmentation, a slow, steady and patient approach ultimately pays off in the long run," Jeanniton adds.
And Patel agrees. "Melanin is what makes the skin take on so many shades in people," she explains. "Melanocytes or pigment-producing cells get excited and larger when exposed to the sun. These cells are not evenly distributed in anyone on the skin, so some areas of skin when exposed to the sun get darker spots, such as sunspots, or darker areas after areas of inflammation (such as after a pimple)."
"I can’t launch into a conversation about the most important elements of skincare without touching on sunscreen," Jeanniton says. "The debates surrounding the merits and perils of physical or chemical sunscreens will likely go on for many years. Nonetheless, it’s important to apply your chosen formulation every day, rain or shine." This gel formula by Supergoop! is a favorite of ours, but Jeanniton backs it, too. She says its comprehensive UVA and UVB protection are of paramount importance.
"Unfortunately, WOC often skip [sunscreen], but they shouldn’t, because there are many benefits for melanated skin—better control of hyperpigmentation, decreased wrinkling and signs of aging, and prevention of skin cancer," Jeanniton told us.
Elta MD's UV Clear is yet another cult favorite SPF option that Jeanniton loves. Actually, we'd be hard-pressed to find a dermatologist or skincare pro who doesn't. Jeanniton points out that it's another great option that applies clear, with no trace of a white cast.
"Melanocytes are very sensitive, so SPF 30 or higher is necessary to wear on a daily basis, even when it may seem that there is no sun out," Patel adds. She likes this tinted facial sunscreen because it layers well under makeup.
Patel also thinks mineral sunscreens are the way to go in terms of sun protection. This way the UV radiation is bounced off the skin as opposed to a chemical block, where the UV radiation is absorbed into the cream. "It is preferable to wear sunscreen with natural minerals as the photoprotective ingredient, such as zinc or titanium," she explains. "It used to be that mineral sunscreens were so hard to find for pigmented skin because they would leave the skin with a silvery or pastey sheen, but technology has come a long way in sunscreen formulations."
"Vitamin C reduces hyperpigmentation, so it helps to even skin tone while shielding from free radicals and providing protection against harmful UV rays, which keeps skin looking even and healthy," Jeanniton says. This antioxidant serum from her line, Epi.Logic, combines vitamin C (as 15% L-ascorbic acid), niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid to brighten, hydrate, and smooth the skin’s complexion.
Jeanniton also points out that vitamin C is a serious multitasker. Aside from its more well-known purpose of fading hyperpigmentation to even the skin tone, many don't know that it can also provide additional protection against the sun's harmful UV rays. This potent serum by Sunday Riley is a fan favorite for its potent vitamin C concentration (as 15% THD Ascorbate) and the addition of a mild glycolic acid to refine the skin at the same time.
"Vitamin C is one of the most powerful beauty molecules for three reasons," Nakra explains. "It’s an amazing antioxidant that reverses DNA and structural skin damage, it powerfully stimulates collagen production, and most importantly for WOC, it regulates the production of melanin, which results in even-toned, radiant skin." This serum from TruSkin goes absolutely gangbusters on Amazon, with thousands of five-star reviews touting its skin-saving benefits.
Nakra recommends SkinCeuticals' Phloretin CF serum because its powerful trifecta of phloretin, vitamin C, and ferulic acid also tackles wrinkles while brightening and evening the complexion. Fans of the brand say the same of its iconic CE Ferulic ($166), which is consistently called out as a go-to skincare splurge for women of all complexions.
It's clear by now that vitamin C can wear many hats in your skincare routine, and that includes the vital role it plays in tandem with other ingredients. As mentioned above, it's also an important substitute for hydroquinone. "Women of color should avoid hydroquinone, as extended use can lead to permanent hyperpigmented spots, called ochronosis," Nakra cautions. "There are numerous safe alternatives, including active botanicals such as turmeric, neem, and peony, as well as modern scientific molecules such as vitamin C, astaxanthene, and niacinamide."
"Niacinamide is a form of Vitamin B3 that is critical for skin cell metabolism. It also increases the production of ceramides, which help maintain the skin’s lipid barrier function leading to smoother, brighter skin," says Nakra. He recommends this affordable option by InstaNatural, because it's highly concentrated at 5% niacinamide and especially effective for producing more lustrous skin.
"I often feel that niacinamide is an unsung hero in skincare for WOC," Jeanniton adds. "It has synergy with other ingredients, so it can be combined with retinol and other actives to help clear pigmented blemishes."
This non-toxic gel serum from beloved chemist-formulated line Marie Veronique combines niacinamide with licorice root and green tea bioflavonoids to keep inflammation at bay.
In addition to 10% niacinamide, this affordable and effective formula from The Inkey List also contains multi-molecular hyaluronic acid 1% to help hydrate the skin.
"Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is skincare MVP," Jeanniton says. "Double Feature is a serum designed for night-time use that delivers a dose of retinol that is effective while still being gentle. It takes advantage of retinol’s pigment-busting effects and couples it with lactic acid for a boost of hydration and exfoliation overnight that results in glowing skin upon awakening."
"First-time retinol users often experience dry, peeling skin. That reaction is normal and is called retinization and subsides within the first few weeks of use," Jeanniton cautions. We love this new retinol serum from Versed because it's a bit gentler than some other options on the market. Slow and steady care, as outlined above, is always the best way to avoid intense irritation and lower your chances of compromising your precious skin barrier.
To mitigate the effects of exfoliants and potential irritants, like retinols, Jeanniton recommends starting slow. "A simple approach is to introduce one new product into your regimen one day out of the week, and then the following week ramping up application to two days, and so on and so forth until fully integrated. Pay attention to the skin’s response and adjust as needed," she instructs.
Nakra also points out that pairing active retinol with an anti-inflammatory ingredient like turmeric is an excellent way to keep the skin happy, healthy, and non-reactive when dealing with retinol. He recommends Avya's night cream, which features both retinoid and calming turmeric.
"For years the ingredient of choice to help lighten dark spots both in prescription and over-the-counter form was a melanin inhibitor called hydroquinone," says Patel. "It is now known to be toxic when used for long periods of time. This is why Visha Skincare Illumenotex was invented and tested to give the same results as prescription-strength hydroquinone using a blend of natural ingredients instead. It's a safer, long-term alternative."
Jeanniton's love for retinol really runs deep. "It delivers on multiple fronts. It stimulates cell turnover, which increases collagen and elastin production, helps plump skin, shrinks the appearance of pores and controls acne breakouts," she told us. "Additionally, given that addressing hyperpigmentation is a common concern among WOC, it’s key in a regimen looking to fade dark spots."
Along with just about everyone else on the planet, we're big fans of Shani Darden's gentle retinol serum. It's great for retinoid newbies and veterans alike, as it houses a mild retinol concentration alongside soothing coffee arabica fruit and aloe vera.
Hyaluronic acid is the ingredient on everyone's minds as of late, and for very good reason. Doctors and skincare pros are constantly touting its water-attracting properties and "plumping" effect in the skin. "Hyaluronic acid is a water-loving molecule, which results in soft, hydrated skin with application," Jeanniton told us. "Epi.Logic’s Master Plan is an innovative hyaluronic acid serum that delivers hydration alongside growth factors that reduce signs of stressors due to age and environment to leave skin glowing with health."
"When skin cells are plumped, skin appears supple with fewer fine lines and wrinkles. It’s a lightweight hydrator, appropriate for both dry and oily skin, and is great for layering with other products or worn alone," Jeanniton adds. We love CerVe's no-frills formulation.
Dr. Barbara Sturm is one of the most respected skin experts in the game, and her line of products continues to top "best-of" roundups like it just hit the market. All hype aside, her HA serum for darker skin tones is actually a game changer. It encourages moisture retention in the skin via hyaluronic acids of varying sizes for maximum absorption.
We're willing to shell out a few coins for a superb skin tonic, but it's a pleasant surprise when such a product exists at a shockingly low price. This one by buzzy brand The Ordinary employs a high-tech hyaluronic acid crosspolymer to enhance the delivery of HA into the skin.