NEW YORK, United States — When Dr. Barbara Sturm, the celebrity skincare guru, launched her first product line for darker skin tones in 2016, she said retailers who clamoured to carry her other products were suddenly skeptical.
“To put it plainly, they did not want products formulated exclusively for the needs of darker skin tones,” she said.
Revolve and Olivela are the only online retailers currently carrying her Darker Skin Tones line, a collaboration with actress Angela Bassett that includes face creams, serums and cleansers. A representative for Barneys New York, which sells Sturm’s other products, said they were never offered the line but would have happily picked it up. Net-a-Porter, which also sells Sturm’s main line, declined to comment.
Going forward, Sturm says she plans to insist retailers that carry her other products also stock the Darker Skin Tones line. She’s likely to receive a warmer reception. In the last two years, the beauty industry has begun to grapple with its history of designing products primarily for women with lighter skin. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, with its wildly successful line of foundations in 40 shades, sparked a makeup trend of putting racial inclusivity front and centre in marketing and product development. Today, industry juggernauts like Maybelline and Revlon have multi-tone makeup lines of their own, promising skin-matching for everything from foundation to lipstick.
As with makeup, skincare brands have long assumed the market for women of colour was too small.
A similar revolution is reshaping skincare, with lines like Avya, Bolden, Base Butter, UnSun and Specific Beauty all launched in the last two years with a racially diverse customer base in mind. But progress has been slower without a Rihanna to lead the charge. For example, at Brown Beauty Co-op, a beauty store catering to women of colour opened by the e-commerce site Marjani and natural hair start-up The Product Junkie in December in Washington, D.C., only 10 out of over 100 brands on offer focused on skincare. As with makeup, skincare brands have long assumed the market for women of colour was too small, while many retailers, particularly on the luxury end, have historically been reluctant to stock items catering to women with darker skin.
In both skincare and colour cosmetics, brands are looking to get ahead of a demographic shift that is expected to give the US a multicultural majority by 2044. Surveys show strong demand for complex makeup routines and innovative products among non-white women. Black shoppers spent $465 million on skincare in 2017, about 15 percent of the market, according to Nielsen.
“Everyone wants that dewy, natural-looking glow today, and, to achieve that, these women need skincare that actually works for their skin texture,” said Theresa Yee, a senior beauty analyst at WGSN. “There is still a real gap in the market and a huge consumer demand for more inclusive products.”
The new crop of skincare brands address issues more common in women with darker skin tones, from hyperpigmentation (the formation of darker patches that occur when an excess of melanin forms deposits in the skin) to higher rates of acne scarring. Brands like SheaMoisture, acquired by Unilever in 2017, have targeted this market for decades, selling in drugstores and big box stores like Target. However, many of the newer brands are charging premium prices at luxury retailers. Epara, a natural skincare line made for and by women of colour, launched at Harrods in 2017 and in October became the first skincare brand catering to this market to be stocked at Barneys.
Retailers’ attitudes are changing as social media plays a larger role in introducing customers to products, said Maya Mikhailov, the founder of retail app developer GPShopper. The rise of online stores also means they no longer have to worry about limited shelf space, allowing them to take more risks instead of attempting to “appeal to the largest audience with every product stocked,” she added.
Everyone wants that dewy, natural-looking glow today, and, to achieve that, these women need skincare that actually works for their skin texture.
According to Jennifer Miles, Barneys senior vice president of cosmetics, the response to Epara has been strong and the company plans to build out its inclusive skincare offering this year.
Brands say they’re also having to educate potential customers about why their darker skin tone may require different treatments.
Katonya Breaux, the founder of SPF-centric skincare line UnSun, said she grew up believing the rules of sun protection didn’t apply to black women. Relatives told her that her dark skin was shield enough.
So when little black moles started forming on her face in her early thirties, she assumed they were genetic. After learning the truth — the spots were a classic sign of sun damage — she rushed to the drugstore to stock up on sunscreen. There she ran into a different problem: ghostly white lotions that clashed with her brown skin.
“They left me with a lilac or grey finish and it was very frustrating,” she said, adding that she often had to mix in foundation to look normal. She founded UnSun a few years after that drugstore visit, in 2016, and now offers products like sunscreen and hand cream in two shades intended for women with darker skin tones.
Base Butter founder and chief executive She’Neil Johnson also witnessed this information gap firsthand when she sent out a survey to customers — mostly black women — asking about their top skin struggles. Demand was stronger for information on best skincare practices for darker skin tones than for any particular product.
These women want to be better informed, smart consumers.
The brand has responded by partnering with skincare experts on social and web content, providing ingredient deep-dives and re-sharing followers' tips and tricks on social media.
“These women want to be better informed, smart consumers,” Johnson said.
Another challenge for these founders is that formulating products for women of colour can require extra layers of testing, given the short history of research and development for darker skin tones. Breaux tested her UnSun products on 12 different skin tones. Epara went back and forth with its biochemist for years. After testing several product iterations, the brand conducted clinical trials with 120 women between the ages of 20 and 59 over a 28-day period, placing an emphasis on the results from women of colour.
Sturm’s company spent two years developing ingredients and formulations for her line, settling on ingredients extracted from magnolia bark and purslane, a herb that grows in Africa and the US. Sturm said the formulation is meant to combat the heightened inflammatory response in darker skin tones.
She said she is planning to introduce more products to the darker skin tone range.
“The consumer base is enormous, and they will continue to demand more tailored skincare products,” she said. “Retailers and brands who don’t listen to the consumer are going to lose to those who do.”