African-American Skin Care Guide

african american skin care

In most ways, skin varies very little from race to race. Basic skin care for all ethnic groups should include staples like cleansing, moisturizing and exfoliating. And people of all skin colors develop conditions like acne, wrinkles, sun damage and unwanted hair. However, minor ethnic differences in skin structure, tone and behavior can create distinctions in how African Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians, etc. can best care for their skin.

For example, African American skin can be more prone to pigmentation problems, ingrown hairs, and obvious scarring. Specific conditions frequently experienced by African Americans can include:

  • Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)
  • Keloids
  • Vitiligo
  • Mongolian spots
  • Eczema
  • Flesh moles

Keep reading for more details about African American skin and related conditions, popular product lines for dark skin, and tidbits about professional skin treatments for African Americans.

Basic African American Skin Info

In most situations, African Americans and dark-skinned individuals can find success with the same skin care products and treatments used by other skin tones. For example, cleansers, lotions and exfoliating masks recommended for oily, dry, sensitive or acne-prone skin should be safe and effective on all skin tones, not just for black or white skin. However, in the case of African American hair products, shaving products, and even scar treatment products, there may be cause for more scrutiny.

On the next level, understanding how African American skin differs slightly in cellular structure and behavior can help dark-skinned individuals avoid and treat certain skin issues like keloids, eczema or hyperpigmentation. Below is some key information about how African American skin and hair reportedly differentiates from Caucasian skin and other skin types.

African American skin pigment: Dark-skinned individuals’ melanocytes (pigment-producing skin cells) contain more melanosomes (melanin producers) than are present in Caucasian skin. This greater concentration of melanosomes—which are also larger in dark skin—gives African Americans and black americans their darker skin tone.

African American skin structure: African Americans don’t necessarily have a thicker stratum corneum (outer skin layer) than Caucasians, but it is composed of more layers—roughly 22 as opposed to 17. This greater amount of stratum corneum layers, combined with a greater tested rate of skin cell cohesion, helps African American skin ward off aging and wrinkles for much longer than Caucasian skin.

There is also speculation that African American skin has a lower, more acidic ph (which can strengthen the skin barrier against bacteria and other harmful substances), as well as larger mast cell granules which play a role in wound healing. African American skin also has a greater rate of transepidermal water loss (TEWL), meaning it’s easier to lose skin moisture and develop dry skin.

African American skin shedding: African American skin has a spontaneous desquamation (skin shedding) rate 2.5 times greater than Caucasian and Asian skin. This could help explain why African Americans and black-skinned individuals have more problems with skin dryness and eczema.

African American skin sensitivity: Black skin is less sensitive to uv damage because of the greater amount of melanin present, which acts as a protective shield for deeper skin tissues. This also explains why African Americans don’t wrinkle as easily as those with lighter skin.

This does not mean African American skin is impervious to sun damage or skin cancer. Rather, African American skin is at greater risk for late detection because of the common assumption that dark skin can’t be burned or sustain sun damage.

African American hair structure: African American and black American hair has a curled or twisted shaft as opposed to the straighter hair shaft typical of Caucasians. This can make combing and styling hair more difficult, and can lead to more breakage due to added stress on the hair shaft. The unique structure of African American hair also factors into the common development of ingrown hairs with shaving.

Now that we’ve discussed some general facts and statistics about African American skin, we’ll break down some of the most common African American skin conditions and their treatment recommendations.

African American Skin Conditions

Most problem skin conditions are colorblind in terms of who they strike. However, certain skin disorders and conditions like Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, eczema, Vitiligo, keloids, ingrown hairs, Mongolian spots and flesh moles are more often associated with African Americans or dark-skinned individuals. Below we provide more information about each one.

Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH). Classified as a darkening of the skin tissue from inflammation, postinflammatory hyperpigmentation affects African Americans fairly often and can be difficult to treat. Hyperpigmentation regularly occurs as an autoimmune response to a skin injury, which triggers the inflammation.

Some African Americans with postinflammatory hyperpigmentation find that the dark spots will fade on their own as the skin injury heals. For others, hyperpigmented skin areas can remain unchanged for months, or even permanently.

Potential treatments for African Americans with PIH can include topical retinoids like hydroquinone, corticosteroids, tretinoin or glycolic acid. Chemical peels, Microdermabrasion and professional laser treatments may also be advised for treating hyperpigmentation. Be sure to discuss the possible hyperpigmentation treatment options with a dermatologist or skin care professional before using any of the above on African American skin.

Eczema. Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is a condition that appears as severely flaky, dry skin. Eczema is twice as likely to occur in African Americans as it is in Caucasians, and can be more embarrassing or noticeable for dark-skinned individuals because the affected areas will be lighter and more noticeable against the darker surrounding skin. Eczema can also be more difficult to diagnose in dark skin and is sometimes mistaken for psoriasis or a fungal rash.

While there is no known cure for eczema, many patients can keep it sufficiently controlled with proper treatment. Most African Americans with eczema will require specially formulated moisturizers and lotions to apply to affected skin areas. The skin will be sensitive and can become itchy and painful if left untreated. Ask your dermatologist or skin care provider to recommend some topical ointments or medications that are appropriate for black skin. Corticosteroids are usually prescribed to treat the inflammation that occurs, antihistamines can help with the itching, and laser treatments may help reduce the appearance of eczema for African American patients.

Vitiligo. A rare condition affecting African Americans and dark-skinned individuals, Vitiligo looks like the opposite of hyperpigmentation. Rather than creating darker patches of skin, Vitiligo is an absence of pigment that develops when melanocyte cells are damaged or destroyed. The definite causes of Vitiligo are still not known, but a general consensus links Vitiligo to a poor immune system and/or hereditary factors. Over time, these white spots can grow larger. In very severe Vitiligo cases, these white spots may overwhelm the entire body. One of the most reportedly famous celebrity Vitiligo cases was Michael Jackson’s, although some still speculate that Vitiligo was not really the source of his light skin.

Common treatments for African Americans with Vitiligo include laser skin treatments like IPL Photofacial or photorejuvenation, prescription corticosteroid cream or skin grafts.

Keloids. Essentially overgrown scar tissue, keloids are more common in African Americans than any other ethnic group. Keloids usually appear following a skin injury, and develop into a type of growth that extends beyond the injured area itself. African American keloids most often form on the chest, arms, back and earlobes. While keloids don’t pose any serious health risks, they are sometimes painful or itchy, as well as being very unsightly.

Keloid treatments for African Americans usually consist of radiation therapy, silicone applications, cortisone injections or pressure wraps. Some keloid sufferers may opt for surgery to remove the scar tissue, but further injury to the area may actually worsen the problem. African Americans’ keloids may even recur after they’ve been removed.

Ingrown Hairs. Most people experience ingrown hairs at some point, regardless of gender or skin color. However, African Americans (men in particular) generally develop more ingrown hairs than others. Due to African Americans’ twisted hair follicle structure, ingrown hairs can easily develop when the hair growth is skewed into surrounding tissue rather than up the hair shaft.

Frequent shaving can make the condition even worse for African Americans. Ingrown hairs themselves aren’t a serious issue, but when the ingrown hairs develop into acne or are left untreated, it creates the risk of skin infection and the potential for hyperpigmentation following inflammation. For treating ingrown hairs, African Americans can use special shaving lotions and creams, as well as post-shaving skin treatments with astringent properties. Using laser hair removal or electrolysis to permanently remove or reduce the unwanted hair growth can also minimize ingrown hair problems.

Mongolian Spots. Usually recognized as birth marks for dark-skinned individuals, Mongolian spots appear at birth or develop shortly thereafter. They are noncancerous and most often occur on African Americans’ backs, buttocks, spine, shoulders or other body areas. Mongolian spots may take on a bluish tint that can make them resemble bruises.

Mongolian spots should be flat and won’t have irregular edges. Most African American Mongolian spots fade by adolescence so professional removal treatments aren’t usually necessary. If you have a skin spot or irregular marking that has developed in adulthood, it’s likely not a Mongolian spot and it should be checked by a medical professional as soon as possible.

Flesh Moles. A condition that more commonly affects African American women, flesh moles can appear on the shoulders, back, arms, and usually appear darker than the surrounding skin. Also known as dermatosis papulosa nigra, flesh moles are benign and shouldn’t be painful or pose any serious health threats. Removing African American flesh moles is most often a cosmetic procedure. Mole removal can cause moderate trauma to the skin surface, or even inflammation and hyperpigmentation, so consult with a doctor about African American mole removal risks before undergoing treatment.

Now that we’ve discussed some of the most common African American skin conditions and disorders and touched on treatments, we’ll mention some noted African American skin care brands that specifically cater to black skin and darker skin tones.

Popular African American Skin Care Products

In recent years, there’s been a notable rise in the appearance and purchasing of beauty and skin products geared toward African Americans or dark skin types. For African Americans and others with dark skin, this means a better ethnic skin care selection today at most grocery stores, drugstores and major merchandisers, as well as online and in upscale cosmetic clinics.

Most African American and ethnic skin care lines share a heavier focus on penetrating moisturizers, skin brighteners and spot faders. Some of today’s top-selling African American skin products and brands, most of which can be found at local drugstores and retailers, include:

  • Palmer’s Cocoa Butter: a long-standing favorite moisturizer and stretch mark lotion, Palmer’s uses a rich blend of cocoa butter, shea, vitamin e and soluble collagen that many African Americans choose for its deep moisturizing benefits.
  • Ambi: Ambi is a product line geared specifically toward women of color. Ambi products include both face and body care items for African American, Hispanic, and other dark-skinned women. Ambi’s Soft & Even product line is reputed to improve skin tone and deliver long-lasting moisturizing action (up to 24 hrs).
  • Queen Helene: A skin care product line used by many African Americans and dark-skinned individuals, Queen Helene incorporates a lot of natural fruit and nut oils into its products to avoid excess chemicals and to provide natural antioxidant and moisturizing benefits.
  • Black Opal: A well-known ethnic skin care brand, Black Opal features three main skin care systems, for acne, moisturizing and "fade care," as well as makeup products. Black Opal’s fade care line targets skin tone problems and hyperpigmentation for dark skin.
  • Carol’s Daughter: Frequently called an eco-friendly ethnic skin care line, Carol’s Daughter is a homegrown business that focuses on body butters, gels and scrubs with natural ingredients like almond oil, cocoa, shea and aloe. Dark-skinned celebs like Jada Pinkett-Smith and Mary J. Blige are fans.

For professional African American skin treatments, or for over-the-counter African American skin remedies, always read labels and confer with a licensed skin care specialist if there are questions about an individual skin condition or adverse reactions to products or ingredients.

In particular, African Americans and dark-skinned individuals should consult with a qualified skin care provider before using laser skin treatments, deep facial peels, or invasive facial skin treatments that could cause scarring or side effects for dark skin.

African American Skin Care Conclusion

To sum up, most African Americans can follow basic skin care wisdom to achieve glowing dark skin that’s healthy, clear and smooth. However, if you have additional skin conditions or skin sensitivities to factor in, choose your products and treatments more carefully with this in mind.

And it never hurts to visit with a professional skin care provider who is familiar with ethnic skin reactivity and other related skin conditions. They can inform you of specific African American skin risks associated with particular procedures, and make personal recommendations to help you experience your best skin care results yet!

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