If you looked at the people who present in skin care ads, you’re going to see a demographic distribution that’s very different from how our population is actually distributed in North America, at least in urban areas. Those with skin of color can sometimes feel left out when it comes to skin care, but what does the science say about skincare for skin of color?
Are there biological differences between light and dark skin tones?
Yes, and the differences aren’t just cosmetic either. Just like there are differences between men’s skin and women’s skin,1 there are important differences between light and dark skin at the biological level as well.2 From the standpoint of skin health, the most important difference is in the skin’s ability to protect itself from UV damage. People with darker skin tones produce more melanin, which provides extra protection from UV damage.
Is the added protection significant?
Anecdotally, most people think so – from phrases like “black don’t crack.” The scientific evidence is also starting to confirm this common observation. Dermletter has been covering an ongoing study, The Multi-Decade and Ethnicity Study from Dr. Rosemarie Osborne that looked at Caucasian skin vs African American skin (and follow-up with Asian skin). One of the significant findings is that markers associated with youth (relative to actual age) consistently appear more often on African American skin.3
Is sunscreen still important?
Yes! Both skin cancer rates and wrinkling are less likely for those with darker skin tones. In dermatology, we use the Fitzpatrick Scale to denote different skin tones, as they are a more objective measurement than a person’s ethnicity. People with darker skin are more likely to suffer from hyperpigmentation as a result of sun exposure. In a sense, the extra melanin can be a double-edged sword.
Do Asians really look younger?
It’s partly stereotype, partly culture (Asians are often much more averse to sun exposure and take care to avoid it), but also partly anatomy. There are numerous markers of aging, but most of us naturally focus on facial features, and one of the main features of youthfulness is how much fat or plump the face has. If you take an extreme example, babies have plump faces – full of fat. With age, we gain fat in our bellies but lose them on the face, making it look hollow. Asians have more fat on their faces, particularly around the eyes. This anatomical feature makes them appear younger on average than a Caucasian around the same age, and it also helps reduce the appearance of wrinkles as well.4
Why aren’t there skincare products for different ethnicities?
The short answer is yes.5 Whether there are relevant differences that warrant having different skincare products is, however, up for question. We covered this issue on gendered skincare products as well. For the most part, the answer seems to be that while there are differences, it’s unlikely that skincare products designed for specific skin tones can address the issues specifically. At least Paula Begoun seems to think so, and we agree. When it comes to cosmetic surgeries, however, there are definite differences that will be relevant, which your surgeon will explain.
How might ethnicity be relevant to the skin?
In terms of ethnicity and skin, everyone has problems, just slightly different ones.
Caucasians: More wrinkles, higher incidence of skin cancer
Asians: Dark patches, oiliness/acne
Black: Hyperpigmentation, ashy skin
The important thing is not to dwell on the things you can’t control, and to be proactive in your daily regimen (like sunscreen!) to address the concerns that you have, or are likely to have in the future. If you have dark skin, for example, ashy skin will likely be more noticeable on you compared to your friend who has pale skin. Using a moisturizer should be a higher priority for you, all things being equal. Sunscreen is important for everyone.
3The study suggests that part of this may be genetic – that people with darker skin may be more likely to have “youthful genes” which retain properties of youthfulness longer, rather than simply the added SPF from melanin.