Multicultural Skincare: Cultural Relevancy Is the Next Frontier

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

When it comes to #beauty, #skincare and #wellness, some might say that we’ve evolved into a more inclusive culture where we should be able to say that “skin is skin” (just like we appreciate that “love is love”).  After all, apart from the amount of melanin that determines our wide variety of complexions, skin, for the most part, is just skin. However, when it comes to #multicultural consumers, what smart brands should know is that the experiences and the opinions that drive their shopping habits are more than skin deep.

A History of Marginalization

Unlike the hair care segment of the “ethnic” beauty business, which had pioneers like Madame CJ Walker creating brands and grooming techniques as far back as the turn of the 19th century, skincare for the multicultural audience is a much younger and less evolved market. From the 1910s until recently, skin care brands targeting black and brown consumers did little more for this customer than treat her skin as if it were a problem to be fixed.  

Advertising, packaging and product ingredients were aimed at lightening, masking and stripping away the natural properties of dark skin.

Even worse, “ethnic beauty” product messaging was blatantly demeaning with slogans that promoted social hierarchy based on complexion: “Brighten your skin, brighten your life.” “Life is a whirl for the girl with a clear, bright, Nadinola-light complexion”. “Remove that mask of dull, dark skin and give romance a chance.” Appallingly, many of these messages are still promoted globally throughout Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and other places where colonialized ideas about the superiority of “fairness” live on.

With over a century of such negative commercial messaging, many consumers of color internalized self-loathing ideas and experience the damaging effects of such harmful products and untruthful misconceptions about the care of their skin. So, the history of skin care, for this audience, is unique.

Our shared journey in the world of beauty has been a continuous search and find mission which has often times resulted in disappointment and misinformation. This explains why far more multicultural folks stick with very simple skincare (like soap and water) and sometimes forego valuable basics like moisturizers and sunscreens. Their reasons range from not knowing which moisturizers or sunscreens to use, to believing that their skin is too oily to need moisturizer or too dark to need sun protection.

While high-tech ingredients have dominated the general market for several years, consumers of color have historically been more responsive to what is familiar and natural ingredients like Aloe Vera and Coconut Oil. Many grew up on brands that their mothers, grandmothers and friends used like Ivory, Nivea, Palmers, Vaseline and Ambi. The difficulty here is that Grandma used “pure” soap not knowing that is was dehydrating. Friends might have suggested alcohol-based astringents or abrasive scrubs to prevent acne without being aware their harsh effects. Mom unknowingly swore by petroleum jelly or cold cream without knowing that they were comedogenic and she may have been “toning” her complexion using dangerous Hydroquinone-based skin lighteners.   

For these reasons and more, one of the most important keys to connecting with this consumer, whether their tried and true ideas are well-informed or not, is #empathy. Putting “care” back in skin care is the first step in effectively reaching multicultural audiences with formulations, development and marketing that resonate with their desires and sensitivities.

The Multicultural Consumer is Not a Monolith

One size does NOT fit all! Cultural #relevancy in branding is crucial. A smart brand meets their consumers where they are. The brand must be both a teacher AND a #champion. This means that the brand must not only be informed about their own products, but they must understand their consumer’s concerns and the impact and effect that their products have on that specific consumer.

Along with understanding his/her point of view, it’s a must for brands to also care about their consumer’s #wellbeing. When it comes to ingredients and product safety, people of color have been neglected by the cosmetics industry. A 2016 study compiled by the Environmental Wellness Group (EWG) determined that only 25% of personal care products targeting people of color fall into the ideal target range for product safety vs 40% of products targeting the general market! The most hazardous products included skin lightening agents which have been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive damage, and cancer.

#Ethics matter! While products that bleach and strip the skin might yield high profits around the world, countless people of color have suffered physically and emotionally from unsafe ingredients and the damaging ideology of #colorism. What is both a smarter and more ethical business proposition is engaging the multicultural consumer with options that promote the healthy care of their skin honestly and transparently.

It’s a simple philosophy…

#Do No Harm!

Also, thank you for being here today...#Technology matters!

When done right, technology becomes a brand’s best friend. We seek brand #ambassadors, story tellers and important resources for crowdsourcing firsthand melanin skin challenges and experiences.

We are all about the plain fact that a diverse future is now and #Empathy, #Trust and #Transparency are the keys. We will be talking more about this in the following weeks.


An earlier version of this blog was published in Medium some moons ago.

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