Caring for melanated skin

WIMJ Guide

The most important difference for caring after darker-toned skin (compared to light skin) is a stronger need to avoid skin trauma, irritation and inflammation. Daily broad-spectrum sun protection for melanated skin is also crucial. Even though darker-toned skin is less likely to get a sunburn, sun protection is a must for avoiding pigmentation issues and keeping the skin healthy and looking young.

The darker our skin tone is, the more productive are the skin cells that produce the natural skin pigment, melanin. The pigment in darker skin is also more stable, it takes longer to degrade. Skin traumas (for example, inflamed acne, scratches, insect bites) lead to changes in pigmentation in the affected areas. Usually more melanin gets produced in these areas (hyperpigmentation). Sometimes though the sites of former skin trauma get a lighter tone compared to the rest of the skin (hypopigmentation). Because of the higher melanin content and its higher stability, the areas of uneven pigmentation in darker skin take longer time to disappear. It is also possible that the melanin response to trauma in darker-toned skin is stronger than in lighter skin. In other words, it takes less damage for a darker-toned skin to get an uneven pigmentation compared to a pale skin. Besides, darker-toned skin often is more prone to scaring. 

This is why those of us with melanated skin need a more gentle skincare approach when it comes to cleansing, exfoliation, skin lightening agents and cosmetic procedures. More gentle skincare means less concentration of actives (including exfoliating acids), no physical scrubs and mechanical rubbing, and more focus on avoiding harsh surfactants in cleansers and common irritants in cosmetics.  

For example, especially if your skin is darker than light olive, as a rule of thumb, it is safer to stay away from chemical peels with the concentration of acids above 10% (unless, of course, you are supervised by a dermatologist with experience in treating melanated skin). 

When introducing a strong skincare active - for example, a retinoid - start with a low percentage 2-3 times a week. Watch your skin reaction closely. Increase the concentration of the active and the frequency of use only if you are sure that your skin is tolerating the active well (and only is you really feel that you need more: often the results are better with a more patient use of low-concentrated actives over a longer period of time). 

In case of acne, it is especially risky to experiment with so called "natural remedies" (essential oils and kitchen skincare) if you have a dark-toned skin. It is better to go for evidence-based but gentle acne treatment approach from the start to avoid post-inflammatory pigmentation issues. 

Sun light is the number one cause of persistent pigmentation issues for any skin tone. It is especially important to protect the melanated skin from UVA light. This is the part of the sun radiation that does not cause sun burn but leads to tanning, DNA damage and pigmentation disorders. Not all sunscreens protect from the UVA range. Make sure that your sunscreen offers a broad spectrum protection: it needs to contain sun filters that are effective against both the UVB and UVA rays. 

There is also a benefit in protecting the skin from visible light, especially for melanated skin. Visible light is less harmful to the skin compared to the UV light, but it still can contribute to pigmentation issues. Tinted foundations and tinted sunscreens with iron oxides offer protection against visible light. 

In sum, the winning formula of caring for melanated skin is: 

extra gentle cleansing 

effective & gentle moisturizer 

extra caution and patience with actives & peels 

avoiding unnecessary irritants in skincare (e.g. fragrances and essential oils)

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daily broad spectrum sun protection.


Sources: 

Porcia B. Love, Roopal V. Kundu. Clinical Cases in Skin of Color

Medical, Oncological and Hair Disorders, and Cosmetic Dermatology


Jackson-Richards D, Pandya AG. Dermatology Atlas for Skin of Color