Skin appropriate

Different skin tones come with different concerns and considerations. Professional Spa & Wellness examines how to best treat darker complexions


There are many factors to take into account when treating a client’s skin: age, dietary habits, sun exposure and local pollution, to name just a few. All of which are necessary to consider in order to make the right product and treatment recommendations.

Another aspect to incorporate into the assessment is the client’s ethnicity, with black, Asian and Caucasian skin, for instance, often displaying different characteristics and encountering different skin conditions and concerns. So what should therapists be aware of when treating clients with darker skin?

Skincare brands emphasise that the key to steering clients with black, Asian, Middle Eastern or other darker skin tones towards the right treatments and products is the same as for any other client group; a thorough consultation to determine their individual skin needs.

“It very much comes down to the client’s unique needs and working with them to create a personalised [plan],” says Emer Gillen, elite trainer for British skincare brand Elemis. Clare Muir, head of training at IIAA, which distributes skincare brand Environ and mineral makeup brand Jane Iredale in the UK and Ireland, similarly says that “it’s not about focusing on skin colour, but on why a particular concern has arisen and how to treat the concern.”

Laura Gamboa, director of corporate education and spa development for Spanish skincare brand Natura Bissé, stresses that the company’s products are designed to address specific concerns, not skin tones.

“We believe in the effectiveness of the products we create to work precisely and effectively on the concerns they are designed for, independent of skin colour or ethnicity,” she comments. At Darphin, UK education manager Emma Schulz explains, “ethnicity is an additional element to consider in the detailed consultation we carry out prior to treatment”

Caution and consideration
Nevertheless, while ethnicity is by no means the complete skincare picture, there is agreement that there are traits that are more likely to define and issues that are more commonly encountered in darker complexions.

“The main difference among the various groups is the level of activity within the melanocytes [melanin-producing cells],” explains Krista Kiley, spa expert at botanical-based skincare brand Aveda. “Because those living in warmer, sunnier climates need more melanin to protect their skin, their melanocyte cells are busier, producing more melanin than in people with lighter skin.”

Image: Aveda 

As a result of the melanocytes’ propensity to overproduce melanin in response to trauma to or inflammation in the skin, dark-skinned clients with higher levels of melanin are more likely to suffer from hyperpigmentation. “Anyone who naturally produces more pigment will be more responsive to triggers for hyperpigmentation,” says Lesley Corridan, education training manager at Dermalogica.

“So a lot of people with darker skin will struggle with things like post-inflammatory scarring and pigmentation left after breakouts. Post-acne scarring can be a real [issue] for many darker skins; the inflammation goes down but they’re left with dark marks for a long time.”

For this reason it is, Kiley explains, essential for therapists to exercise caution when carrying out certain treatments on darker skin. “For these clients, it’s very important not to cause trauma to the skin, “ she says. “For example, when carrying out extractions on darker skin, the therapist must be careful not to exert too much force, or they risk post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.”

The existence of melanocyte-stimulating hormone, which plays a key part in prompting the melanocytes to produce melanin, means those with darker skin are more prone to be affected by hormonal changes.

“They are very responsive to hormonal fluctuations and will often struggle with melasma during pregnancy,” Corridan explains. “They might also see pigmentation on their upper lip in response to the contraceptive pill.”

Clients with dark skin, especially black complexions, are also more likely to have keloid scarring – a thick raised area of scar tissue that develops when an excess of collagen is produced around a wound and the scar continues to grow even after the wound has healed.

A 2012 study by the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit established that African Americans are seven times more likely to develop keloid scarring than Caucasian Americans – though the reasons are not yet known.

environ man
Image: Environ 

Male matters
While most of us still think of a woman when picturing a hypothetical spa client, we’re all aware that more and more men are visiting spas and salons, making it important to be aware of the issues male clients with darker skin can face.

“If you are dark-skinned, the skin has a thicker epidermal layer, which grows back a lot faster than a Caucasian skin,” says beauty expert Kim Ford, former chairman of the Confederation of International Beauty Therapy & Cosmetology (Cibtac) and the British Association of Beauty Therapy & Cosmetology (Babtac).

“This means that when they shave, the hair doesn’t always grow back fast enough to come through before the skin grows back, and so hair becomes trapped underneath,” Ford explains.

Corridan adds that the fact that many dark-skinned men have curly hair can also create problems. “If their hair is curly, it will often grow in on itself, with the ingrown hair causing inflammation and scarring,” she says.

Age delay
Clients with dark skin are often able to naturally do what many others work hard to achieve with careful lifestyle choices and skincare regimes: delay the skin ageing process. “Darker skins are lucky in that they age the slowest,” Corridan comments.

“Melanin is designed to absorb UV light. It absorbs it into the epidermis and prevents it from getting down into the dermis, where the degradation of collagen and elastin that leads to fine lines and wrinkles would occur.”

Reinforcing this, Muir explains that “darker skins do tend to age slower, as the melanin is denser, which means the fibroblast receives more protection”. As a result of this, Kiley says, “the demand for anti-ageing treatments may begin later for clients with more melanin.” Not only does dark skin tend to start ageing later, it also, Schulz says, ages differently.

Image: Environ 

“Wrinkles are les of a concerns and the first sign of ageing are usually discolouration, loss of definition, a loosening of the skin, some fine lines and dark circles under they eyes.” Of course all skin tones and types eventually show signs of ageing and, Kiley says, “everyone, regardless of colour, [needs] preventative skincare, so it’s important to share anti-ageing tips with everyone”.

Regardless of the colour of your skin, everyone is also capable of burning in the sun, and in need of additional protection against its rays. “Some people still think that darker skins don’t burn, that they don’t need to use a sun factor, but they do,” says Sarah Mills, head of sales and training at Thalgo UK.

All clients are also affected by lifestyle factors, which impact on their skin and the way in which it ages. “Free radical damage from pollution causes ageing, regardless of whether you have a darker or a lighter skin,” Corridan says.

Gillen points out that: “We are a product of our lifestyle and someone with dark skin living in London could have a very different lifestyle to someone with dark skin living in the Caribbean. Their level of sun exposure is going to be different and their stress levels could also be very different. It’s not just a case of skin colour, or type, it can be more down to the individual’s lifestyle, which can create certain skin problems.”

Training protocol
In order for therapists to be in a position to advise clients with dark skin on how best to look after it, they must first possess that knowledge themselves. At the moment, the extent to which a focus on working with darker skin is part of college and product house training is very much down to the individual institution. 

“What I have found is that different places treat it very differently,” Ford says. “You have places that really do know about darker skin and treat it accordingly, and you have places that just carry on with the same process they would for any skin type.”

Kiley explains that at Aveda, teaching students how to work with all different skin colours is part of the training protocol. “Aveda training highlights the difference in treatment for various complexions and therapists have hands-on training with guests from a variety of cultural backgrounds and skin types,” she says.

Andrea Craig, Murad training manager for the UK and Ireland, says that for Murad, it’s more a case of “educating the therapists on different skin concerns and on the products that work best for those skin types,” rather than about focusing on ethnicity. This is also the approach at Darphin.


However, while the brand does not specifically dedicate part of its training to working with black, Asian or other darker skins, Schulz says it “trains on a diverse area of concerns, including how to treat discolouration, dark circles and ashy complexions, which tend to be top concerns for darker skin”. At Dermalogica, the subject is similarly addressed when areas of particular relevance to darker skin are covered.

“We have workshops on hyperpigmentation and if you came to our Daylight Defense: The SPF Workshop, you would learn about how UV light affects lighter and darker skin and how to deal with challenges such as clients with darker skin believing they don’t need to wear an SPF,” Corridan says. 

Mills says that for Thalgo UK, its location in the capital means therapists almost automatically get the opportunity to familiarise themselves with all different colour of skin during training. “Being in central London, we have therapists from many different backgrounds and they work on each other during training, so they get to experience working on different skin tones, including darker ones,” she comments. 

Key skincare concerns for darker skin is also covered when training therapists on Thalgo’s Clear Expert range. While Mills explains that the range “is not marketed specifically at darker skin, it is very much designed for the type of concerns they tend to have with their skin,” including the desire to brighten the skin and address pigmentation irregularities. 

Education aspect
Depending on where therapists are based, their client base may not be as ethnically diverse as in a major city such as London. “Sometimes you have to educate therapists about darker skin because depending on where they’re from, they don’t always come across it
that often,” Mills says.

“If there is someon in the training who is perhaps from a rural location and has not treated a darker skin before, open it up to discussion in the training room – that way everyone learns.” Ford agrees that it’s necessary for all therapists to know how to approach a darker skin, even if they live in an area with a more limited non-Caucasian clientele.

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“Even if they don’t get hands-on experience of working on a darker skin that often, it’s important that they have the underpinning knowledge, so they know how to move forward with a treatment plan when they are presented with the situation,” she says. 

Mills also believes it’s key for therapists to “get that understanding and that confidence,” working with the full spectrum of skin tones. To be truly effective this knowledge will, she adds, primarily need to be passed on by the colleges.

“We of course advise them as much as possible, but we have a time limit,” she says. “There is only so much we can do in the week we have them for face-to-face training, during which they also have to understand the Thalgo brand, products and treatments. So I think it really needs to come from the colleges.” 

In-depth analysis
Misconceptions about the characteristics of darker skins and how to treat them include, Mills says, the notion that darker skin is more resilient. “You do find some therapists who think that darker skins are tougher and that they can put almost anything on it, and that it’s not going to react as much as a white person’s skin perhaps would,” she says. 

“Whereas dark skin can, of course, be even more sensitive sometimes.” Another miscomprehension is, Ford explains, that most dark-skinned clients have an oily complexion. “Many therapists make the mistake of treating a dark skin as if it’s an oily skin,” she says.

“Because of the reaction of dark skin to the spectrum of light, a darker skin appears shiny to a lot of therapists, so they make the assumption that it’s greasy.” In fact, she continues, “you will quite often find that a darker skin is dehydrated”.

One way to avoid this skin misdiagnosis is, Ford advises, to use a wood lamp to analyse clients’ skin.
“In my experience, it really is the best way to treat a darker skin,” says Ford, who is a trained therapist. “Because of the way the wood lamp works, you get a clearer, more definitive analysis of the skin. You see things that you wouldn’t necessarily notice by just looking at the skin.” 

Image: Next

Industry best?

Experts across the industry agree that the sector has made considerable progress when it comes to products for darker skin. “For me, it’s the makeup side of things, more than anything, that stands out,” Gillen says.

“It seems there are now so many more opportunities to get the right colouring, the right products for darker complexions.” Citing recent experience, Corridan adds: “Going to trade shows last year, I felt there was quite a good spectrum of options for any skin and I think big reputable brands now know that if they are not universally applicable, they’re actually not financially viable.”

However, Muir says, we are not quite there yet. “I think the industry is adapting well, but still has a way to go,” she comments. “In the wider market, there are still not enough makeup ranges offering several shades for darker skins. Our brand, Jane Iredeale, has addressed the demand with a range of shades in liquid, BB cream, pressed and loose powder formats to suit many skin tones.”

The industry may not completely have arrived in terms of being able to offer a therapist core with confident and detailed knowledge of how to treat darker skins and a diverse product offering catering for these complexions. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the sector is making steady progress in the right direction