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Skincare for Different Skin Colors, Tones & Ethnicities

June 26, 2021


While every body has the same skin, not everyone’s skin tone and color are the same. Look at any group of people, and you’ll see a range of tones, colors, shades and other differentiators that depict a wide range of skin types, from very light to very dark.

Our skin type, color, and tone is predetermined by genetics, as well as the amount and type of pigment melanin in your skin. Except for perhaps identical twins, everyone’s skin tone and color is slightly different. It’s as unique as a fingerprint, although to the naked eye it can look quite similar.

Biologists have been intrigued for centuries by differences in skin types and color, and surprisingly today there is still some disputes about the exact genes that are responsible for the differences in skin color.

Scientists have tried to determine other factors that may contribute to differences, studying everything from the climate, location, and even the cultures of different people, but despite all their studies they still don’t have an exact basis for the underlying genetic differences.

Why it’s Important to Know About Skin Color

So why is all this effort being put forth into determining what may be causing the differences in skin tone and color? One of the largest reasons is whether and to what extent skin color and tone has on our overall health - particularly in the area of skin cancer.

On one side is the impact sunlight and UV exposure has in relation to skin cancer. Just as an example, in Australia the lifetime overall incidence of skin cancer is almost 50%, but despite this overwhelming evidence the indoor tanning industry is still growing.

On the other side you’ll find people who don’t have enough exposure to sunlight and UV rays, causing vitamin D deficiency, but thankfully this has largely been eliminate by nutritional advances.

Our amazing variation in skin color gives scientists, particularly those who study cell biology, a remarkable opportunity to study cellular and sub-cellular changes that lead to (or prevent) disease.

Caring for Different Skin Colors, Tones and Ethnicities: An Objective Look

Until recently, skin color, tone and type was largely based on subjective observations, including descriptors like, “dark, medium brown, fair-skinned, freckled, etc.” This description would vary based on the person and their own personal biases who was making the subjective comments and typing.

Fortunately, there is now an objective approach to describing skin types and colors. It’s called the Fitzpatrick Skin Typing Test, which works to divide skin tones into four different categories. These include:

Type I: this is the lightest shade and describes people with pale or milky white skin complexions. This type always burns when exposed to the sun.

Type II: is described as very light brown skin color with some freckles. Most Caucasians who are of European descent display this skin type, and may acquire a tan but often burn when exposed to the sun.

Type III: is described as light brown (and sometimes “olive). People wit this type rarely burn and often tan easily, and are usually Latin, Asian, Mediterranean or from the Middle East.

Type IV: describes the darkest skin tone, with brown or dark brown skin color. These people tan rapidly and almost never burn. People with this designation are usually from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or Caribbean and Latin countries.

Differences in Skin Colors & Aging

Historically, racial and ethnic differences in various skin properties haven’t received much objective study. But, modern methods of studying skin may help explain the differences in skin disorders among people. Objective methods now include several ways of determining how our different skin types respond to the environment.

They include trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), water content of the skin (WC), lipid content, elastic recovery and others. Studies show that TEWL is far greater in black skin when it’s compared with white skin. Darker skin also has a higher blood vessel reactivity and larger mast cells compared to lighter skin. The other methods, including WC and elastic recovery susceptibility, have been inconclusive so far.

Lighter Skin is More Susceptible to Photoaging Prematurely

What about skin aging and different ethnic groups? Each ethnicity and racial group has unique, natural features, and the biggest difference is between people of color and Caucasians. This relates to the amount of melanin in their skin.

Those with lighter skin types tend to suffer more skin damage due to UV exposure (photoaging), which means they are prone to showing signs of aging much more readily than those with darker skin. This photoaging leads to fine lines, wrinkles, dry and sagging skin due to loss of elasticity as well as hyperpigmentation.

Those who have darker skin tones, like Type III and IV, will display signs of aging much later in life. They can, however, suffer issues like dark circles and discoloration.

Studies show that the concentration of epidermal melanin in darker skin types is twice that of lightly pigmented skin types. Darker skin has larger, singly dispersed melanosomes that have a lot more melanin compared to people with lighter skin.

While higher melanin content offers protection from exposure to UV radiation and other harmful UV effects, dark pigmentation is more vulnerable to dispigmentation.

What About Wrinkles?

It's a common stereotype that wrinkles are less prevalent in black skin and Asian skin, but is there truth to this? Some studies hypothesizesthat this is to do with skin thickness.

Fibroblasts are cells within the skin that repair and renew tissue. As people get older, the lifespan of fibroblasts decreases, contributing to the appearance of aging. Another issue is that structural changes in the face contribute to an aged appearance, with folds and wrinkles.

In the skin of people of color, there tend to be more and larger fibroblasts, along with smaller collagen fiber bundles. Together, this means skin renews itself a little more efficiently and is less prone to structural aging.

Skin thickness is found to be proportional to the amount of pigment in the skin, which can explain the smaller amounts of wrinkles in Asians and people of color. In addition, darker skin types are found to have more fat content compared to white in the outer skin layer. This also helps to account for less wrinkles.

Skin Care Needs of Different Ethnicities

While different ethnicities have unique skin care needs, there are also cultural, genetic and environmental factors that can influence the specific needs that people may have. It's important to keep in mind that even within similar skin tones and shades, skin care needs can vary widely. We all still may have oily skin, dry skin, breakouts and many other skin concerns based on health and our environments.

Some findings show that Fitzpatrick Skin Type II has a considerably higher risk for skin cancer than other types. Another study found that skin aging is often delayed in darker skin types, and shows as deepening folds on the face instead of fine lines and wrinkles found in people with lighter skin.

This may mean different approaches to aging and antioxidant formulations must be considered based on ethnicity. But there are cultural differences among the different ethnic groups that can also influence skin disease.

For example, people of color who have melanoma are often diagnosed at a later stage of the disease than people with lighter skin. Even preventive measures differ in different ethnic groups. One study showed that performing skin self-exams are deficient in Hispanic communities, who also are diagnosed with melanoma at a later stage.

What about environmental differences? Different skin diseases are related to geographic locations, independent of exposure to the sun. Climates with high humidity have been linked to higher numbers of people with advanced psoriasis, eczema and acne.

With regard to acne, one US study showed that African Americans had a high percentage of acne lesions, 65%, but only 5.9% showed acne scars. Contrast that with Hispanics who had the same number of lesions, but 21.8% had scars. So it appears that different skincare products and different formulations may be needed to meet the specific needs of different ethnic groups.

Age spots and uneven skin tone are the two issues of great concern to people of color compared to light skin types. Studies have shown that people of color are often more susceptible to becoming deeply concerned with textural and structural changes of their skin.

Another consideration among the different ethnicities is a doctor’s approach to cosmetic procedures. This is especially true for people of color. The goal is to achieve maximum results in the procedure without injury to the skin. But people of color are more prone to post-procedure inflammatory pigment changes and scarring -- something to be aware of when considering procedures and aftercare.

Are certain skincare products better for different skin tones?

People of color have skin tones that range from light tan skin to dark ebony. Asian skin tones range from pale porcelain to a golden bronze. Caucasian skin color also ranges from a white alabaster to dark olive tones. The point is there is no single color or tone for each ethnicity, but a wide range of colors and tones -- not to mention most of us have multiple ethnicities and races in our genetic backgrounds.

There is no doubt that skin color impacts the type of skincare products people look for when making a purchase. But should it be a top concern when shopping for products?

For most people, focusing on skin type (more below), current environment and ingredient sensitivity is likely to be the most effective way to approach skincare.

But, there are a few key things to be aware of for your personal skin tone. It always helps to be mindful of the ingredients in the product formulations that you use.

Topical Acids

Darker skin tones are more sensitive to topical ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids than Caucasian skin. This can lead to an unwanted inflammatory response that can cause side effects like post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. 

In addition to pigmentation problems resulting from exposure to UV rays, discoloration can also result from different medications, cosmetic products and inflammatory skin diseases. A lot of the problems occur when inflammation interferes with the basal cell layer in the skin, causing melanin pigment to be trapped.

While this post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation problem is more common in darker skin colors, it can also happen in lighter skin colors as well, affecting both males and females. When you use a new product, always test your sensitivity to it. 

Patch Test! The simple patch test method involves testing the new product on an area of skin such as your inner elbow or forearm. Apply the product to clean skin and examine the area after 24 hours to see if your skin has had an undesirable reaction. For leave on products, try to leave the area undisturbed for 24 hours. For rinse off products and masks, follow product directions and then leave the area clean for 24 hours.

If needed, talk to your dermatologist or other healthcare professional to ensure that any pigment issues are not a result of the products you may be using, and to determine what clinical treatment may be needed.

Skin Type and its Impact

Another important consideration when deciding on your overall skin care regimen is your skin type. This can impact you just as much as skin tone, if not more. There are basically 6 main skin types, including normal, dry, oily, combination, sensitive, and mature.

Each skin type has its own characteristics and unique needs.

  • Normal skin has no significant issues with oiliness or dryness, and very few breakouts to contend with. If your skin is normal, you likely have a routine going that your skin is happy with. Your main goal is protecting from UV damage and integrating new products wisely.
  • Oily skin often has enlarged pores and is more prone to breakouts. Gentle but effective cleansing helps prevent clogged pores. Moisturizing is recommended with lightweight water-based formulas. It's important not to try to dehydrate or strip oily skin, as this only exacerbates the issue.
  • Dry skin is often dry because the external moisture barrier needs support (or from internal dehydration). For this skin type, you need a very gentle cleanser and ingredients that hydrate and protect your skin from the environment. Nourishing and repairing products can help resolve dryness by boosting skins ability to retain moisture.
  • Combination skin types may require different products, for dry areas and for the oilier skin areas.
  • Sensitive skin often requires simple skincare formulations without strong soaps, actives, exfoliants or fragrances. Non-stripping cleansers and products with calming and repairing ingredients are ideal. Avoid trying several new products at once.
  • Mature skin requires products that help to soften, tone, and restore  skin to a more youthful appearance. Higher concentrations of antioxidants and more intensive moisturizers are usually appropriate.

Other factors play into your appearance, including appropriate nutrition, exercise and the right amount of quality sleep. In particular, diet plays a key role because the nutrients you provide to your body can affect your collagen and elastin production, including foods with vitamin C, A, and polyunsaturated fats. Topical products that have these vitamins also are needed to help the skin remain firm and radiant.

Another helpful key is to hydrate your body and moisturize your skin. Products with hyaluronic acid are also helpful to keep the skin moisturized for every skin type (it's naturally within your skin already).

No matter what your skin looks like, looking your best is really a combination of using the right products, having the right diet, getting a good amount of exercise, getting good sleep, and leading a healthy lifestyle that will keep your skin happy.