Why we need to talk about the language we use to describe Black skin

It’s been two years since black squares flooded our Instagram feeds and brands and corporates spoke about ‘listening and learning’ when it came to racial injustice across all facets of life. Keeks Reid looks into how language and perception of Black skin has changed in the beauty industry. 

** Book in for our PB London panel on 'Inclusive & diverse marketing: How to ensure you're showing your business is open to all' on 5th March here. Or book Dija Ayodele's talk on 'Treat all skins with confidence: busting the myths around skin of colour', also on 5th March here. **

For all my years within the beauty industry, I have noted the strained relationship between Black beauty, clients, language and professionals. From the lack of inclusion in marketing materials to clinics simply not offering services that work for skin of colour, as a young Black beauty writer it was an at times disheartening experience covering the industry at the top of the decade.  

Both within the trade and as a consumer, I saw how any colour higher that a 3 on the Fitzpatrick scale was so often an afterthought and would have to write about services, such as IPL that I couldn’t test, chemical peels pros would refuse to do on me and products like SPF that left my skin colour grey. Worse still, I would have to pull up colleagues about describing Black skin as complex or difficult to treat. 

While there has been real improvement in the scope of clinics and salon eagerly welcoming Black clientele and the product and services part of the industry is moving at a steady pace, the language and perception side of things still leaves quite a bit to be desired.  

“I don’t feel that language has changed much,” says Bianca Estelle, skin specialist, medical aesthetician and founder of bea Skin Clinic and bea Skin Care. “But I have noticed a long-overdue shift in the industry, now addressing Black skin – from mainstream media covering more diverse skin features to brands and clinics offering more inclusive products and services.” 

The problem is, can we see real, meaningful change if there is still a language issue? It’s something that seeps into all areas of the industry from products and services being made and marketed to the way beauty specialists talk about Black skin and Black clients speak about themselves. 

One person that has been an integral part of the shift in Black skin and the beauty industry is Dija Ayodele, author of Black Skin: The Definitive Skincare Guide, owner of West Room Aesthetics and founder of the Black Skin Directory, a resource to connect Black clients with suitable practitioners. 

While Ayodele has seen a step up in the awareness of inequality with the way that Black skin is treated there is more perplexity than progress when it comes to language. “I've noticed a lot more confusion around the terminology for Black skin,” she says. “Especially over the years, especially in the last five years or so where people are more ‘woke’.” 

You could say it’s a good problem to have, where people are more worried about causing offence with what they say as opposed to willingly saying the wrong thing but it can cause confusion, or worse still lead to people not addressing Black skin or Black clients at all. 

“I can hear people being confused over how they address clients,” says Ayodele. “Do we say Black skinned? Do we say Black people? Do we say people of colour? Do we say women of colour? What do we say? But I think that confusion is actually part of a healthy debate in regards to what does one group of people want to be called?” 

A healthy, open dialogue is something that cosmetic doctor Ewoma Ukeleghe encourages among her peers for forward progression. “There’s definitely less of a homogenisation of dark skin now and, in general, people seem more comfortable even just saying the words ‘Black skin’ instead of saying ‘melanated’ or ‘darker skin tones’,” she says. 

But to further growth she believes there needs to be a sharing of knowledge and experience among pros. “Because I think that sometimes we [Black doctors and beauty professionals] can have a biased opinion and think that non-Black doctors understand more about Black skin than they actually do,” she continues. 

“It's only when you have a deeper conversation that you realise actually many of your non-Black peers have no idea and still have an odd understanding of Black skin. Sometimes there is a sense of dehumanisation with it as well.” 

The dehumanisation aspect is something I’ve seen as a beauty journalist many times referencing clients’ skin, not just with Black skin but with all types of clients. A detachment of skin and the person. However, I think it’s more concerning when referring to Black skin because of the already complex view that particularly Western society has with Black beauty.

Not having a harness on the way that we describe or refer to treating Black skin or its conditions can also have an effect on the way that clients speak about their own skin or feel when they visit practitioners.  

“Don't describe Black skin as hard, don't describe light skin as challenging because these things create a cycle of negativity that's coming from the practitioner on to the client,” notes Ayodele. 

“The main thing is making sure that practitioners don't use words that that can be misconstrued. A peer has said to me, ‘Oh, I don't do Black skin,’ and I said to her if you say that to a Black person, all they'll hear is the negative, and possibly racist connotation of that statement. I said, what you could say is, ‘I am not that experienced yet in some of the concerns that my Black clients bring forward’ – that has a much softer tone to it.” 

Estelle has had the same discussions, on the client side of things. “A lot of clients that come to me have told me they’ve been turned away for certain treatments, such as chemical peels, and told – often incorrectly – that they aren’t suitable candidates,” she says. 

“Until more recently, Black skin problems haven’t been addressed in the media and by larger brands, so consumers aren’t confident that products can treat their issues. They’ve not felt ‘seen’.” 

To rectify this, training and peer-to-peer conversation are going to be the only tools that push things forward. As Estelle says, “If practitioners are trained by those with the correct knowledge, skills and experience, we can see a big shift in how Black skin problems are approached. 

“In the skincare industry, big brands and clinics are the ‘original influencers’ – it’s where consumers come for expert help, so it’s vital that all skin types and tones are catered to and that when Black clients are seeking a solution for their skin problems, they find it easily.”