It’s a universally acknowledged truth that the topic of skincare is more popular than ever. An industry once hyper-focused on pimples and anti-aging has grown to prioritize wellness and become synonymous (and often conflated) with self-care. Once wildly personal, skincare has gone public, often verging on theater—whether it’s a faux-casual selfie of someone eating pasta while masking or a highly produced video of a celebrity washing their face and getting dragged for doing it badly. There’s also an abundance of advice offered by experts and enthusiasts, sometimes the two unable to agree (and people having a hard time deciding who’s right).
The world of skincare, in its sheet-masking, serum-applying, carefully-documented glory, is often touted as the great unifier for people of all skin tones, skin types and needs. There’s something for everyone, it claims, the inherent invisibility of products allowing the industry to be slow in its focus on inclusivity and avoid the discussion in a way the makeup sector never could.
Skincare remains another site of privilege where Black people continue the fight to be seen and heard.
Skin of color, in its rich variation of tone and slowness to age, is seen as impenetrable and strong, much like the people who possess it. It’s a fallacy with complex ties to a system that has historically ignored Black people or purposefully denied them safe, effective care, and still makes it difficult for us to gain knowledge and achieve goals too.
Before the internet, skincare advice came by way of friends, family and magazines. It was in these spaces that one learned how to shrink a blemish, ways to slow down the skin aging process, and which products were necessary for a dewy glow. It was beauty secrets whispered and passed down, lessons learned by watching and copying.
But Black people rarely got to see their unique challenges addressed outside of trusted circles since these narratives were routinely overlooked by print magazines claiming to service everyone. Things changed with the advent of social media, where previously marginalized communities were able to connect in quasi-public spaces about the shared issues they were facing and address the outlets and brands that had been ignoring them all along.
Leading the charge are dermatologists, estheticians and enthusiasts, who talk about things like hyperpigmentation, how to identify skin cancer (often caught at a much later stage in Black women) and answer questions that are often still ignored by mainstream media.
“If you look at major print magazines before the advent of online beauty blogs, most skincare articles and product advertisements within them did not speak to women of color,” says dermatology resident Adeline Kikam, known as the @brownskinderm on social media. “We’ve just recently started talking about how to care for Black skin and hair on a national level.”
These thought leaders with proven influence have shifted the very concept of authority. Whereas outlets and publications were once on the cutting edge, determining the trends and uncovering the next new thing, the roles are now often reversed.
One such influencer is Nayamka Roberts (also known as @LaBeautyologist), a trusted expert in the skincare space, thanks in part to her innovative “60-second rule.” But it didn’t start out that way. It took a while to find her people, Roberts tells me when we catch up via phone, noting that when she launched her Youtube channel in 2016, “no one really cared about skincare or talked about it.” Before focusing on skincare, she dabbled in natural hair and food but says the more she spoke about skincare, the more she realized people needed help.
Roberts, who notes she is “the only esthetician followed by Barack Obama” on Twitter, has nearly 150K followers on the platform, many of whom look to her for guidance about achieving glowy, luminous skin. Her 60-second rule—which she says is an ideal time frame for allowing the cleanser’s ingredients to interact with your skin (and for you to interact with yourself), has become so big it often loses attribution. She, like many women of color who have had ideas or disrupted spaces, has seen her concept outsize her, co-opted into mainstream discourse and often leaving her nameless.
And while Roberts acknowledges the ways her work has outgrown her influence, she ultimately wants to educate. “I don’t really want people to be dependent on brands or even dependent on me, it’s all about empowering people to know how to take care of themselves,” she says.
Dermatologists have also found their way into the movement, using their clinical knowledge to intervene in a space that has often overlooked women of color. Kikam uses her platform as a way to inform and educate, dispelling common myths and sharing products that speak to common concerns for skin of color. “I wanted people of color to have a trusted space of evidence-based medicine related to their skin,” she says. Since starting her Instagram in 2017, her community has gone global and grown increasingly diverse.
These thought leaders with proven influence have shifted the very concept of authority.
“People of color everywhere demand to see themselves reflected in the way skincare is discussed,” she explains. Unlike many other platforms her size, Kikam touches on lasers and aesthetics, a space Black people have been historically shut out of or hesitant to discuss due to cultural norms and ideologies that suggest “black doesn’t crack.” Her willingness to shed light on these topics has created a judgment-free zone, where people are able to open up about conditions they’re often too embarrassed or nervous to discuss.
She’s also one of the few resident dermatologists to discuss long term effects of skin bleaching and other conditions on social media, like hidradenitis suppurativa, an autoinflammatory condition that disproportionately affects Black women and results in painful lumps and discharge in areas like the groin and armpit. “By being able to articulate her symptoms better to her primary care doctor and bringing up the possibility that she may have HS based on what she had seen on my page, she was able to convince her primary care doctor to refer her to a dermatologist,” she shared.
Kikam says this happens often and while she’s happy to be part of pushing the conversation, she’s cautious of her role in a highly commercialized space. “I think the information on skincare needs to be accessible and affordable across all classes and not come off as elitist and exploitative.”
True inclusivity is specific and meets people where they’re at rather than demanding it happen the other way around.
It’s this work that pushes the conversation forward, but the skincare industry still has a long way to go. True inclusivity is specific and meets people where they’re at rather than demanding it happen the other way around. Brands and publications could take a page from Kikam and Roberts’s books, and use their platforms to center and consider these skincare concerns rather than add them in later or pretend they don’t exist.
We need education in both the clinical and social spaces, where people of color are foregrounded and given the same attention as their white counterparts. Until then, skincare remains another site of privilege where Black people continue the fight to be seen and heard.