Last autumn, I published my book Palette, The Beauty Bible for Women of Colour. Aside from the obvious “Why did you write this book?” (answer: because brands were erasing Black women from the beauty conversation and I wanted to write them back in), the question I got asked the most was: “Do Black people really need different beauty products?” Sometimes, this line of questioning was innocent and laced with curiosity. Other times it was accusatory, heaving with disdain.
One of the negative by-products of inclusivity is that in our great efforts to say “we are the same, we are equal”, we fail to understand and acknowledge certain nuances and deviations that set us apart. This lack of recognition is counterproductive. The fact is, Black skin is different, it reacts to trauma, treatments and ingredients differently. And yet, in the name of equality, most beauty brands claim that their skincare is universal and suitable for all. So, does that mean there isn’t a need for skincare created specifically with Black skin in mind?
I pose this question to Noelly Michoux, the French co-founder of 4.5.6 Skin which offers cutting-edge, customised skincare products for melanin-rich skin at an accessible price point. She responds with a wry laugh. “When brands say they are formulating for everyone, and have tested on everyone, that is simply not the case. We started our brand in a centre where many of the world’s biggest and most prestigious brands are being made, and I can tell you these brands do not include melanin-rich skin – known as the 4.5.6 skins – in the research and development process. These are the people who manufacture the ingredients – they set the tone for the industry. They are the ones who say, ‘Hey, retinol is the ingredient for this year’ but when they test the ingredient, they don’t look at how it interacts with skins that are different. When brands then include them in their formulas, they don’t test them on darker skins.”
This is exactly why Michoux, a former corporate executive, believes her recently-launched brand – which she co-founded with New York-based dermatologist Dr Carlos Charles – has a place in the market. However, while 4.5.6. Skin speaks directly to darker skin tones, Michoux is keen to emphasise that the products are created based on the Fitzpatrick scale – a system that classifies skin into six different photo types – which places emphasis on skin physiology, rather than colour and ethnicity, which have no scientific ground. “Phototypes 1, 2, 3, are Caucasian skins, and they have dermatological principles that are theirs. But the dermatological principles for Phototype 4, 5 and 6 are different. They have structural and functional differences that need to be factored in to R&D.”
The main difference, she cites, is that Black skin is thicker; 20 layers to the stratum corneum (or the skin barrier) versus 16 in Caucasian skin, which means that darker skin needs significantly more (and deeper) hydration. Its higher levels of melanin means it thrives in sun and humidity. Colder climates, on the other hand, deregulate the skin barrier and makes it less able to retain water. Another major difference, explains Dr Charles, is the way darker skin responds to inflammation. “The skin cells that produce pigment, known as melanocytes, in Black and brown skin are incredibly robust and efficient in producing melanin. When they encounter any form of inflammation – caused by a whole host of factors such as acne, sun exposure, overly aggressive exfoliation or any form of trauma – these melanocytes respond by producing excess melanin which leads to stubborn hyperpigmentation. Many of my patients come to me because they are concerned with their uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation, yet may not realise the actual issue that needs attention isn’t the hyperpigmentation itself but whatever malady is leading to it.”
Michoux’s own battle with hyperpigmentation – she suffered from “pregnancy mask” or melasma, long after the birth of one of her children – in addition to her beauty experiences living and working in Paris, New York and London, left her feeling that there was still “this huge disconnect between what Black, Asian and non-Caucasian women are spending to deal with their skincare issues and what the industry is offering to them. I was frustrated seeing that lack of representation.”
Ozohu Adoh, the Nigerian-born founder of skincare line Epara, which launched in 2014, was arguably the forerunner in creating technologically advanced luxury skincare for darker skin tones. Like Michoux, her foray into the beauty world was initiated by her own skin woes. “I had no interest whatsoever in developing a skincare brand; my background was in finance and strategy. I was simply looking for a moisturiser to deal with my follicular eczema. I had a lot of disposable income and I was willing to spend money on good products but I would buy these (premium) brands and products and they just wouldn’t work for me. It’s easy to complain about companies not doing this or that, so I thought ‘Well what are you going to do about it?’”Adoh answered her own question with Epara, high-performance products that combine African ingredients and botanical actives to serve the needs of darker skin tones. “I felt it was really important that women should be able to see themselves represented.”
This running theme of representation was also at the forefront of Roger Dupe’s mind when he decided to create Melyon, a Stockholm-based skincare line that launched in October 2020. As an ex-model (his resume includes Vogue, GQ, H&M, Kenzo and Gaultier), he saw, first-hand, the racial inequalities that exist in the fashion and beauty worlds. “We are the people that the majority of people don’t think are the ideal of beauty. So I decided to create something to lift us up.” The brand is not only cruelty-free, environmentally-driven (the packaging is nearly 100 per cent recyclable) and aesthetically pleasing, but it has also conducted extensive research on how the formulae and ingredients actually work on Black skin. That this process isn’t the norm remains unfathomable to Dupe. “I think it’s important to choose brands that have been thinking about everyone from the beginning and not those that just have the ‘white perspective’ on how to develop products. A huge percentage of the world’s population has darker skin, why is no one focusing on them?”
Alas, the white perspective is not limited to product development. It also extends to whoever holds the purse strings, hence brands fronted by Black people have traditionally found investment and industry support elusive. Perhaps, specifically in this instance, the dearth of business allies also goes back to that inherent belief that Black skincare does not need its own category. For Michoux, there was a “triple-threat” of odds stacked against her. “Being an entrepreneur,” she explains, “is already hard because you are taking a risk to start a business and there is no assurance of success. Being a female entrepreneur is even harder, because entrepreneurship, historically, is a man’s world. Being a first-time, female entrepreneur who is Black and has a project for a POC audience tops it all off! A lot of people thought I was delusional and I was politely turned down by many. Most investors are white males, and beauty is just not something they connect with. They don’t use it themselves and skincare for POC is even further from them because, most likely, they don’t have many POC in their circles and they have no awareness of the issue I was trying to solve. So that was difficult. But, at the end of the day, I had to not let my Blackness condition my entrepreneurial endeavours and simply had to sell the biggest vision possible in a way that was irrefutable.” It worked. She raised $700,000 (£530,000).
For Adoh, the path to success was also littered with challenges. “It was not an easy ride,” she quietly admits. “When I started this brand in 2014, I was using my own money. It was only in 2016 that I got my first investment. Harrods gave me a chance and stocked the brand – they had data that showed Nigerians were spending a lot with them. I went to so many other retailers and they just would say: ‘Sorry we don’t have the clients; we don’t have the customers.’ I had so much pushback. 2018 and 2019, in particular, were extraordinarily tough years. But I was determined to see it to the bitter end before I considered walking away.” The racial reckoning of 2020 proved something of a turnaround for Epara. “Everything changed. Now everybody wants to work with us.” While difficult not to view this back-pedalling with deep cynicism, Adoh says she is keen to hold on to the mantra that “cream always rises to the top”. She is emphatic “that if you persevere and you have a good product, somehow it’s going to break through.”
This might prove a lifeline to Dupe, whose direct-to-consumer product line is just a couple of months in. Like Adoh, he has launched his business with a self-financed model. “It was very difficult to raise money and we are yet to find external retailers,” he confesses. Nevertheless, he is optimistic. “So far the response to the brand has been so good. I feel I’m raising the voices of the ‘minority’ through my brand.”
For Michoux, centring people of colour is also a requisite. “I want any woman of colour in the world with 4, 5, 6 skin to know that when they’re going through those struggles with their skin, they have a brand they can call their own. One where they are not an afterthought in the process. One where they know they are at the centre of everything that we do.”