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Performer and aerialist Farrell Cox
Performer and aerialist Farrell Cox photographed by Hazel Gaskin

The hidden dangers of beauty treatments on darker skin

As Black women continue to suffer serious consequences from laser treatments like the BBL facial, Lakeisha Goedluck investigates how lack of education and resources around darker skin tones is impacting the beauty industry

“Hey everyone. Look at my face. It’s devastating right?” So begins a video posted by TikTok user Monique last month in which she shares her experience getting a BroadBand Light (BBL) facial. Monique had been told the treatment, in which a laser is used to address issues like hyperpigmentation, would be perfect for her skin. “No scarring, no risk, no downtime. Just a little bit of swelling.” What actually happened, however, was that the treatment caused her body to go into shock and she was sent to the ER with first and second-degree burns all over her face. “This service is not for melanated skin,” Monique says in the video, “and at this point shouldn’t even be offered.”

A couple of years ago, Lianne went to get the same treatment. Luckily, she got a patch test first which left her with a burn on her forehead. “[My aesthetician] said, ‘We have the same skin tone, I’ll use the same setting.’ She is Latina, I am half-Black.” Last year Estella went for laser hair removal and wound up with burns all over her chin and neck: “Definitely learn from my experience, not everyone knows how to [treat] dark skin.” 

Lasers like the ones used in BBL therapy target melanin in the skin, which is more concentrated in darker skin tones known as Fitzpatrick skin types 4-6 in cosmetology. It is unsafe for the skin to absorb so much light energy as this can lead to overheating. Dr Mitchell is a highly experienced dermatologist who’s practiced for decades. She says darker-skinned clients are extra vulnerable when it comes to cosmetic procedures. “Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a risk of hyperpigmentation and/or scarring when Black patients undergo [treatments] that involve trauma to the skin, which include injections, chemical peels and lasers,” she explains.

But shouldn’t this be common knowledge in the industry? Jamie Finley-Scriven is a Black woman and an esthetician from South Carolina who owns a spa where she offers a range of skincare treatments. She believes that a lack of inclusive teaching is the reason why Black women are not getting the information they need and receiving subpar care as a result. “A vast majority of the text we used [at my cosmetology school] focused mainly on European skin types,” she explains. Finley-Scriven believes that historical bias against people of colour has negatively affected the education system. “Even my own instructor encouraged us to take courses outside of schooling to educate ourselves on darker skin types, which she had done herself.”

Although Dr Mitchell trained as a dermatologist, her educational experience wasn’t dissimilar. “I was a dermatology resident 25 years ago and though I was fortunate to do my training in Detroit where I saw Black patients, I saw very few Black dermatologists and didn’t have access to a mentor,” she explains. Dr Mitchell says that she’s had Black clients express gratitude when seeing her, simply because they knew she understood their concerns as a fellow person of colour. Despite this commonality, there were no informational resources she could offer her patients back then. “I wasn’t able to see conditions presented on Black skin in textbooks, nor did I have pamphlets or brochures to pass out to Black patients with people in them that looked like them.”

Like Finley-Scriven, Dr Mitchell feels that current training for skincare specialists isn’t comprehensive enough. “Proper training involves learning how to treat all skin types,” she says. When asked how this could be done, she isn’t short of ideas. “Resources [such as] virtual didactics and even opportunities to [visit] communities or programs that have Black clients are a way to gain exposure and experience with treating darker skin types,” she suggests. However, Dr Mitchell says that it’s also the client’s responsibility to do thorough research when selecting a practitioner: “Schedule a consultation and ask about their experience, look at before and after photos, [and learn] how many treatments they’ve performed on women that look like you or have darker skin types.”

Medical procedures aside, the cosmetics sector of the beauty industry has been celebrated in recent years for offering greater options for people of colour. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty has an estimated value of $2.8 billion, with industry experts often crediting its success to the brand’s diverse selection of products for all skin tones. In 2016, aesthetics doctor Dr Barbara Sturm launched a range exclusively for darker skin tones. “Darker skin tones have some specific dermatological needs; scientific literature shows skin with more active melanocytes possesses a special sensitivity to inflammation, which can lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and other dysfunctions,” she explains. “I spent years and my own funds researching and developing an ingredient-science-based skincare line to address the unique inflammation challenges of melanin-rich skin.”

From Oprah to Angela Bassett, several famous Black women are outspoken advocates of Dr Sturm’s range for darker skin tones. However, the launch was met with resistance from the wider beauty industry in the US. “When I first launched [the collection], I was discouraged by the initial reluctance of some of the major retailers in picking it up – even though over 100 million people in America have darker skin,” explains Dr Sturm. “It came to the point where I insisted that if retailers wanted to carry my main Molecular Cosmetics Skincare line, they’d have to carry the Darker Skin Tones Collection as well, and they did.”

Her experience correlates with statistics gathered last year about the state of the beauty industry in both the US and UK markets. Black consumers in the US are three times more likely to be dissatisfied than non-Black consumers with their options for haircare, skincare and make-up. In the UK, the Black Pound Report found that multi-ethnic consumers spend 25 per cent more on health and beauty products in the UK than any other consumer but nearly four in ten Black female shoppers say it’s hard to find cosmetics and skincare.

Clearly, the demand is there but the supply is still lacking. While some larger beauty companies have diversified their product ranges, and Black-owned businesses like Epara and Hyper Skin have emerged to provide high-quality options, darker-skinned women are still the forgotten demographic. Fortunately, from a cosmetological standpoint, organisations like Hæckel’s Beauty Academy are trying to provide practitioners with the necessary education to treat all skin tones effectively. The academy has created four new courses that veer away from standard teaching and even offer a specific accreditation in facial skincare for skin of colour. Hopefully, more institutions will follow suit because as Finley-Scriven says: “Skincare has never been one size fits all – especially when treating concerns for skin of colour.”