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illustration Callum Abbott

4.5.6 Skin: the POC-focused skincare line decolonising the beauty industry

The pioneering beauty brand creates cutting edge skincare backed by science, addressing the gap in a $140 billion global beauty market for non-caucasian skin

It’s the depths of winter, and, like clockwork, my skin is looking dull and feeling dry. I’m mixed-race, and throughout most of my adult and teenage life, my skin has always started to suffer from the moment we enter October and continues to feel this way until the first signs of the April sun appear. While I know melanin-rich skin is meant for hotter climates, for a long time I thought this dullness and dryness was a me problem. I never really thought about how the genetic make-up of my skin could have such an effect. But, just like how my curly hair needs to be treated differently from my white peers, so too, it turns out, does my skin. Which seems quite obvious when you think about it. 

Although we continue to be sold on the idea that ‘skin is skin’ and are advertised products ‘suitable for all skin types’, hiding in beauty labs is apt evidence which shows not only the visible differences between melanin-rich skin and non-melanin-rich skin but the structural and functional differences too. This difference is something Noelly Michoux, founder of 4.5.6 Skin, believes should be reflected in our products. “I used to think this was my Black skin problem,” Michoux tells me. “But it was something that most women of colour at large were going through.” 

Michoux has spent the past two years building up 4.5.6 Skin, a skincare line which caters to the needs of the melanin-rich skin men and women who have continuously been left behind and overlooked in the beauty industry. After realising the problems she was having with her skin as a dark-skinned woman were being felt throughout Black and Brown communities, she found scientific evidence to back up her theories and has been determined to ‘decolonise’ the beauty industry ever since. 

Hoping to revolutionise the skincare industry, she says she knows her dream is a long way off. Reflective of broader society, POCs have continuously been underserved, and to some extent not served at all, in the beauty industry. We live in a world based on Eurocentric beauty standards, and while we may see more Black and Brown beauty ambassadors and models, this pseudo representation is only skin deep. 4.5.6 Skin is working to change this by making products with Black and Brown people in mind. Creating cutting edge skincare backed by science, the brand is addressing the gap in a $140 billion global beauty market for non-caucasian skin.

We spoke with Michoux to talk about 4.5.6 Skin, why POCs continue to be overlooked in the world of skincare, and how the beauty industry can, and should, step up. 

What is your background, and how did you get into skincare?

Noelly Michoux: My background actually had nothing to do with beauty or skincare, but I ended up working in New York as a brand manager for a French e-commerce agency. It specialised in bringing luxurious, French make-up brands to the US market, and black|Up cosmetics was one of them. This was one of the few brands back in the day – when I say back in the day, this was like 2013, but we've gotten so used to having options since Fenty Beauty – that I could wear myself as a dark woman that didn't make me look green, that didn't oxidize, and I didn’t need to mix. 

It was in the course of building this brand that I started having conversations with customers, make-up artists, and bloggers and realised the problems I was having with my skin, as a Black woman, were being experienced by not only Black women but Indian women, Brown-skinned Latinas, Pacific Islanders. And the fact this was in the US, a country where, for me, there’s so much diversity, I thought your choices for beauty should be much more representative. It blew my mind. So I wanted to understand what the link was between women of colour and the lack of satisfaction in skincare. 

What was your first experience of beauty? 

Noelly Michoux: I wouldn’t say this is a first beauty memory, but from an early age, as a dark skin girl who grew up in a very white environment, my skin was always an obsession. And not in a good way. I was obsessed with my skin because it was too dark. And the stereotypes that are linked with having dark skin kind of haunted me. Skincare for me growing up was very basic, like shea butter that my mum brought from Cameroon because that was the best way to keep our skin from cracking. But when I started having acne, high pigmentation, and sensitivity, I turned to manufactured skincare as something that could help me improve my skin and something that could help me hate it less. That’s what I thought.

I went through everything, you know trial and error, the whole struggle, I did it all. I was that girl who bought anything and everything with this naive enthusiasm in a hope to get clear skin. So it’s been a beneficial relationship with skincare in a way because it brought me to where I am today. If I didn't have that relationship with my skin then I wouldn't have tried to understand all of the ramifications of skin, the physiology. I would have stuck to shea butter and the basic stuff, so I would never want to change that journey. 

“I realised the problems I was having with my skin, as a Black woman, were being experienced by not only Black women but Indian women, Brown-skinned Latinas, Pacific Islanders” 

There is much more choice for POCs in other beauty fields, such as make-up and hair – maybe, as they are more visual, but skincare feels flatter. What are some of the differences between melanin-rich and non-melanin rich skin?

Noelly Michoux: Well, the explanation for make-up was pretty clear. Make-up knew there was not enough diversity in shades, so that was why it was not working. But for skincare, it was super confusing. I used to believe that skin was skin until I discovered the Fitzpatrick scale, which classified skin prototypes with specific references to the risk of sunburn and skin cancer. And so there were skin prototypes one, two, and three, and this skin has low melanin levels. It sunburns easily, and, in our society today, we call it white skin. And then we also have prototypes, four, five, and six, which have medium to high melanin levels, and they tan easily. This was the first thing I learnt. But then I also learned that the level of melanin was only the visible difference, and there were also structural and functional differences too. So, Black and Brown skin is thicker, for example, which impacts how you hydrate the skin. 

There is also discolouration, which is like two and a half times higher for dark skin which is why it's often dull. Then there are melanocytes, which are little cells that produce the melanin pigment. With darker skin, melanocytes are very active, which is a blessing because we have more melanin that protects our skin, but it also means that any little aggression – pollution, acne, putting a mechanical device on you're on your face, or using the wrong skincare – is going to trigger your melanocyte to rush melanin to the irritated area. This is why we are prone to hyperpigmentation. 

And then there is also the climate, which plays a huge role in the overall health of Black and Brown skin. Our skin thrives under the sun, so when we find ourselves in colder, sunless climates it completely impairs the skin barrier and causes a long list of problems. The skin loses the ability to retain water, it becomes more sensitive. There are so many factors I discovered and they blew my mind. But it also helped me understand that yes, my skin is not crazy, there are these real problems that aren’t being addressed. These products, these amazing products, that have been made by amazing brands, just don't work for me and this is the scientific explanation.

If this information is out there, why are POCs still not being catered for?

Noelly Michoux: It really runs deep in the fabrics of our society. You have to go back to the fact that beauty ideals have been built on stereotypes that are just not advantageous to dark skin. The whole beauty industry has been historically focused on Eurocentric features. Even today, if you look at medical textbooks of how skin conditions and diseases are portrayed and studied, it is always from the perspective of white skin. That naturally continues with the medical treatments for skin problems and the devices and procedures that are developed and tested. I see the beauty industry as an extension of the dermatology industry, so naturally, the focus for the beauty industry, just like dermatology, has been on white skin. So, for example, white skin has one main problem, which is visible ageing. If you really look at the industry, you'll find like 80 per cent of our skincare industry is all about anti-ageing, and that's just not really a problem for dark skin. So it is historical and runs deep in the fabrics of our society.

Do you think things are starting to change as inclusivity becomes more of a capital that brands can profit off of?

Noelly Michoux: A few years back, brands started to say ‘we are trying to make products for darker skin’, but they thought we had less buying power. That is not the case anymore, and I think skincare brands have failed to realise how much our society has changed. I feel like the way the beauty industry has been trying to cater to darker skin tones has been by trying to get us closer to Eurocentric beauty standards – you know, like ‘let’s straighten your hair and make you lighter with these products!’ That probably worked before, but we live in a different time where melanin-rich skin people see and value their beauty. POCs really are demanding that the industry looks at them and addresses them for their specific needs. But the industry is still failing to do this. The latest solution found, I felt, was to include women of colour in their marketing campaigns. But that's not real inclusivity. Real skincare inclusivity should start with R&D and testing. I started 4.5.6 Skin with my mission being that I'm going to fill this skincare gap and do it by performing dedicated R&D and testing based on the specificities of Black and Brown skin.

There are a lot of brands that say they’re inclusive to all skin types (oily, dry, etc), what would you say to those that claim this? 

Noelly Michoux: First of all, we need to talk about skin types. What is a skin type and what is the value of that information in skincare formulations? Skin types change, they evolve. I think this is a limitation of the industry. The industry serves the masses, and when you serve the masses you want to put people in boxes. You put people in boxes, and then you know exactly how to address them. But if those products were solving problems for everyone, why are people still complaining? This is not only for people of colour, even caucasian skin is not satisfied. And I’m not just talking about lack of inclusivity, this is also about how we care for people's skin in general. Like 90 per cent of skincare formulations still have so many known skin offenders. But attention is being put on how a product looks, how it smells, and who is selling it instead of looking at what’s in this bottle. I feel like anyone who says that skin is skin or is claiming to make products that satisfy everyone, they have to ask themselves then why are people still complaining? So I can’t go with we satisfy everyone, that's not enough.

To get back to 4.6.5 Skin, can you tell me the story of how it started? 

Noelly Michoux: When I had my second child, skincare became an obsession of mine. Like a year or even more after each one of my pregnancies, my skin was looking crazy. I was like seriously, I have to do something. So, I started the brand like that. It was not easy. I tried to go to labs and explain my project and the one thing they kept telling me was, ‘Oh, you want to do products for Black skin? We don't do that per se, but we do have good formulas, you can get them, add some ingredients, shea butter, a bit of perfume, and you should be good.’ And I was like no, that is not what I'm trying to do. I have all this scientific evidence and understanding of how the skin works, I want to do proper R&D. 

So, I went to the French cosmetic valley. You had people from the LVMH Research Center, and the reason I think it became very serious for me is because they recognised there was a huge problem, this huge gap, and no one was addressing it. I feel like we have really created a lane, where melanin-rich skin men and women can come and feel like this is a brand they can call their own. We really address their issues in a way that is authentic. This is not just like marketing, everything we do is around melanin skin. 

What is the future of 4.5.6 Skin?

Noelly Michoux: I am really obsessed with this idea of giving as many men and women of colour access to high-quality skincare because they deserve high quality, they deserve high performance, they deserve things that are made having them in mind. I don't care where they are in the world, I want them to have access to our products. We really want this brand to become a reference for high-quality, high standards, serving melanin-rich skin all over the world. We have the knowledge and expertise to do this. So I really want this brand to be a worldwide reference for those with melanin in their skin. That's the big picture dream here for me.

And, what do you hope for the future of the beauty industry in general?

Noelly Michoux: My dream is even bigger. We can even call it a fantasy for now. I really hope to see a beauty industry that is completely decolonised and that the only standards of beauty would be those defined by each person, on their own terms, and would be celebrated by the industry. And really like, that's my dream. Do you see why it's a fantasy now? (laughs)

Are you hopeful?

Noelly Michoux: I am always hopeful because that’s just my personality. I’m hopeful to see an industry that will genuinely celebrate the individuality of melanin skin. I dream of brands that would put a product out and say ‘hey look, we are actually going to look at ingredients to make sure they work for the skin, and then we are going to test them and we are going to be inclusive, like really inclusive, and forget about this gimmick of including people because we are forced too and we are doing it in a way that is genuine’. But as long as we work around this Eurocentric beauty standard then it’s going to be a long road.