Where Are All the Black Beauty Chemists?

Getty and Photo Illustration by Keila Gonzalez

Image Source: Getty and Photo Illustration by Keila Gonzalez

On March 6, Spelman College announced it would become the first historical Black college and university (HBCU) to offer a cosmetic science program. “Research shows that Black women spent more than $7.4 billion on cosmetics and personal care products in 2022. However, Black beauty brands comprise 2.5 percent of the market,” the school noted via a press release. “Spelman College is working to change that trajectory.”

The statistics are true. As of 2021, less than 10 percent of cosmetic chemists in the United States are Black, according to the career information platform Zippia. This is a stark contrast to the amount of money Black people spend on cosmetics year over year.

“I was the only Black chemist in three of the contract manufacturers that I worked for,” cosmetic chemist Javon Ford, previously told PS. “Everything about this has ripple effects. From the vendors using outdated, tone-deaf language to describe their projects to the actual cosmetics that are created – all of it is affected by that lack of diversity in this industry.”

Ahead, we ask cosmetic chemists to explain why the diversity in the field is still lacking, its effects on the beauty industry, and what can be done to fix it.

Experts Featured in This Article

Javon Ford is a cosmetic chemist and content creator.

Esther Oluwaseun is a a cosmetic chemist, aesthetician, and content creator.

Why Is Diversity Still an Issue in Cosmetic Chemistry?

While Spelman is taking a major step in fixing Black representation in cosmetic chemistry, in the not-so-distant past, it wasn’t unusual to have only a handful of Black students in a school cohort. “Back in 2019, I pursued a master’s degree in cosmetic chemistry and I was only one of six Black women in my class out of 35 people,” Esther Oluwaseun, cosmetic chemist and aesthetician, says. “There were no Black men enrolled in the program.”

As for why this is often still the case in 2024, Oluwaseun has a few guesses. “In my opinion, cosmetic chemistry is a highly specialized and niche field that, until recently, was not widely recognized or promoted as a career option,” she says. “Consequently, many people, including Black individuals, may not have been aware of the opportunities available in this field.”

Additionally, the way that “beauty” has been viewed in the United States has never been one size fits all. “The beauty industry has historically operated through a white and Eurocentric lens,” Oluwaseun says. “This lack of inclusivity has meant that products and innovations were often not designed with Black consumers in mind, leading to a diminished presence of Black professionals in the field.”

The issue also stems from insufficient representation. “Just seeing people who look like you in a field that you’re interested in is crucial for career guidance and networking,” she says. “Even when Black people enter the field, a lack of inclusive workplace environments and support networks can make it difficult for them to thrive and advance in their careers.”

Why Diversity in Cosmetic Chemistry Matters

As you can likely imagine, when an entire field not properly representing the population that it’s supposed to serve, the ensuing products can lead to disappointment. The perfect example is when makeup brand Youthforia recently came under fire after releasing its darkest foundation with black pigment, which many creators noted was void of any real undertones.

“Instances like that are 100 percent caused by a lack of inclusivity behind the scenes,” Oluwaseun says. “Diversity drives innovation. When there aren’t many people of color chemists, makeup artists, and consultants being brought into the conversation during the creation of beauty products, a narrower range of items that fail to meet the diverse needs of all consumers is what we’re left with.”

We see these effects not only with the products available for people to buy but also in the language used to describe beauty products. “Non-Black vendors of the raw material supplies will say things like: ‘this project is great for fine to normal hair,’ but what is normal here?” Ford says. “Is kinky-coily hair not normal?”

Little representation within the beauty industry can have a host of other disastrous results, like cultural gaps between brands and their consumers. “This disconnect can show up in marketing campaigns, product development, and even customer service that does not resonate with or respect the cultural identities and values of diverse groups, leading to a loss of brand loyalty and trust.”

What Needs to Change

There are a few ways to address the issue, says Oluwaseun. It starts at the collegiate level. “Efforts should focus on enhancing access to quality STEM education for Black students through increased funding, scholarships, and specialized programs, aimed at fostering interest in chemistry from an early age,” she says. It’s true, the earlier you expose children to STEM-related topics, the more likely they are to be comfortable with these subjects later on. This could lead to increased interest in these fields of work.

The role of advisors should also not be discounted. “Mentorship initiatives can play a crucial role in providing guidance and support to aspiring Black cosmetic chemists; connecting them with experienced professionals who can offer insights and advice is essential” Oluwaseun says. She adds that inclusivity should be an active practice behind the scenes as well: “Fostering inclusive industry practices is imperative. Companies in the beauty sector should be actively promoting diversity and implementing policies that facilitate the recruitment, retention, and advancement of Black chemists.”

The beauty industry’s influence reaches far and wide, but when it comes to diversity there’s still lots of work to do. Cosmetic chemists, in particular, have the ability to transform the space for good – and it’s about time that we commit to making the industry reflective of the people that it serves.

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