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How our ethnicity affects our skin

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

People of colour make up the vast majority of the world's population. However information on the characteristics of ethnic skin is limited. Darker and lighter skin tones react differently to UV radiation, irritation, pigmented disorders and inflammation. Lack of information can prevent people of colour from taking proper precautions when caring for their skin. For instance, a lack of promotion of the importance of SPF for dark skinned individuals may lead to black and asian people not protecting their skin from the sun.

The colour of our skin is determined by the amount and distribution of melanin (the skin's pigment). We can determine our skin colour using the Fitzpatrick scale:

Dark skin

High levels of melanin in the epidermis of your skin, plays a massive role in defending against UV radiation from the sun. The UV rays are unable to penetrate the surface of the skin and are unable to cause DNA-damage and skin-cell destruction to the same degree as lighter skin. This means that the darker the skin, the longer it will appear youthful.

You still absolutely need sun protection though. Whilst far less prevalent, dark-skinned people can and do get skin cancer. Studies show that black people who do get cancer are much more likely to die from it than their caucasian counterparts as they present in unusual areas such as the soles of the feet. Another common concern is that they are worried about the white cast left by many sunscreens.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is where the skin is left darkened or discoloured after skin -injury or inflammation. PIH can occur after common skin conditions like acne. Or they can be the result of skin treatments, such as microdermabrasion. Melanin, yet again is the key player. At the site of inflammation, the melanin producing cells make excess melanin, creating discoloured skin. Picking your spots makes this worse by further aggravating your skin and exacerbating inflammation. Skin peels are a great way to reduce hyperpigmentation, however if the skin hasn't been properly prepped and primed, it could actually make your hyperpigmentation worse. The sun plays another key role as it makes your dark marks even darker and so SPF is vital to prevent further discolouration.

Darker skin types are also more susceptible to keloid scarring. It results in scarring that spreads beyond the borders of the original field of skin damage. If you know that you're prone to keloid scarring then you should prevent any unnecessary trauma to the skin including piercings, microblading, tattoos and unnecessary surgery.

Other things to consider include, traction alopecia, the loss of hair around the hairline, when we try too hard to keep those 'edges snatched'. Once lost, the hair is difficult to recover but continued damage can be prevented by reducing the amount of time you do tight braids and weaves. Pomade acne is another example, a form of acne that occurs close to the hairline and is caused by greasy hair products finding their way onto the skin from the scalp that can be improved by taking care not to place hair products on the facial skin.

Tanned, Asian and Hispanic skin tones

When the skin’s protective barrier is compromised, it becomes prone to irritation and inflammation. Asian skin is the most easily irritated and so particularly prone to conditions such as eczema. Protecting the skin's barrier function is most important for this group of people. The best way to do it, is to adequately moisturise the skin. It is therefore also important to resist the urge to over-exfoliate.

Intermediate skin-tones have greater levels of melanin than caucasian skin and so develop the characteristic signs of ageing (wrinkles, sunspots, loss of skin elasticity) later on than individuals with lighter skin. They are still less protected than darker skin and most still need daily SPF. For the same reasons as with darker skin, they can also still experience hyperpigmentation and are prone to conditions such as melasma.

Melasma is a chronic skin condition that causes asymmetrical, blotchy hyperpigmentation on the face, arms and back. It is a common issue for Asian women that can lead to embarrassment and distress. Triggers for Melasma include: UV radiation, pregnancy, oral contraceptives, some scented soaps and hypothyroidism. The best treatment is prevention, know and avoid your triggers, stay out of the sun and use very high SPF. You should also consider skin peels and topical preparations containing vitamin C.

Caucasian skin

The lower levels of melanin in your skin help prevent against the pigmentary issues faced by your peers but make you more exposed to the harmful UV radiation from the sun than everybody else. Sun protection is everything. Use it even when the weather looks gloomy, use it even when indoors and reapply it throughout the day. Wear hats and long sleeves when you can and remember to apply your suncream to your lips, your hairline and ears!

Rosacea and redness: Individuals with rosacea are often fair-skinned and of European descent. They experience a sensation of flushing which can sometimes turn to burning or stinging. Those with severe rosacea may start to notice that the skin on their faces begin to thicken. Knowing your triggers is key and avoiding the sun, alcohol and spicy food will help.

Cultural issues

We all have our vices. People across all cultures make massive mistakes with their skin. Did you know that the global market for bleaching creams will be worth $8 billion by 2027? Shocking to know that bleaching is not only still happening, but also thriving. People not wanting to admit that they are using skin lightening creams drives its use undercover. This can decrease the awareness of the dangers. Hydroquinone, the main skin lightening ingredient removes the top layer of skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer, and potentially causes fatal liver and kidney damage.

The most obvious destructive habit for those with light skin is the desire to tan in the sun or worse in sunbeds. Lying outside in the sun without a hat/ suncream hoping for that quarantine glow is hands down the worst thing that you are doing to your skin. UV radiation can and will ultimately lead to malignant melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) and will accelerate ageing in ways that you would not believe.

Take aways:

The sun is no friend to any of us!

All of our skin has amazing qualities about them and we should love their strengths and protect their weaknesses!

Our cultures make us who we are but let's find a way to protect ourselves and our skin.

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