Diversity in the Beauty Industry Is Still Only Skin Deep – Here's What Needs to Change
Thanks to a newly wider choice of foundation shades and more diverse campaign models, it would be easy to assume that the beauty industry has finally woken up to issues of inclusivity. But what you might be surprised to hear is that this is often only skin deep. Despite marketing campaigns making bold promises of wonder products, these results are skewed dramatically in favour of white and caucasian skin because there is still a major imbalance within clinical testing.
Not all skin tones are created equal. While there are, of course, similarities when it comes to dryness, dehydration, and pigmentation changes, there are a number of disparities that need to be properly explored. Yet there remains a wide diversity gap within the skincare industry: cosmetic products are often not tested on people of colour.
Take, for example, this 2020 study. The research on Skin Colour Awareness in Dermatology by the Skincare Network looked at 130 publications surrounding the manifestations of COVID on the skin. A huge 92 per cent of images showed fair tones, with no images of darker tones.
This shortcoming is not only evident in studies, but amongst the experts who are equally disproportioned to challenge this research. “Dermatology is one of the least diverse medical specialities. Only 3 per cent of dermatologists in America specifically are Black, even though 12.8 per cent of the population are African American. Again, 4.2 per cent of dermatologists are Hispanic compared to 16.3 per cent of the general population,” Dr Sharad Paul MD tells POPSUGAR.
The same issues are occurring this side of the pond. London-based medical student Malone Mukwende has created a handbook called “Mind the Gap” after feeling frustrated that he only studied conditions on white skin. The book contains images and descriptions for fellow medical students, allowing them to study the clinical signs and symptoms of all skin colours.
While more companies are striving for equality, diversity is so much more than a box-ticking exercise. Representation on all fronts is paramount, and not just in the surface-level images and shades seen by the consumer. Here, industry experts weigh in on why diverse clinical testing is crucial and what can be done to change the current landscape.
What Is Clinical Testing?
“Clinical testing or clinical trials are performed in the beauty industry for a variety of reasons, from testing the claims of a product to efficacy,” Ejiro Owusu, skin specialist and founder of Ejiro Beauty Studio tells POPSUGAR. “Brands do this to provide consumers with vital information that can support the results and benefits of that product. This is a great way for brands to build trust and loyalty amongst their audience.”
Why Is Skin Representation Important in the Beauty Industry?
Simply put, “if the products or ingredients haven’t been tested on skin of colour, we have no way of knowing if those products will work successfully or not,” says Dija Ayodele, skincare expert, author of Black Skin and founder of Black Skin Directory and Westroom Aesthetics to POPSUGAR. Take Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS), a chronic inflammatory condition highly prevalent in Black skin. A study on the condition evaluated 47,690 patients over 12 years. While 68 per cent of participants were white, only 14 per cent were of African descent. This disproportionately affected the results.
Or consider skin conditions such as acne, eczema, keloid scarring, alopecia, and dermatitis (to name a few). Due to the rich melanin in darker skin, conditions such as these are likely to cause hyperpigmentation due to the increased production of melanocytes in the skin. “There are differences in structure and skin functions between all racial groups that have to be accounted for,” says Owusu. This means that the products claiming to target and heal hyperpigmentation may not have been tested on darker skin to claim validity.
Ayodele highlights that “as a practitioner, you want to be confident about the products, treatments, and ingredients that will work for the client sat in front of you. Whether English rose or dark Sudanese, you want that certainty, and without the clinical testing, you don’t know how that particular product will interact with someone’s skin.”
With more conclusive research, shoppers can make confident decisions regarding the health of their skin and bodies. “You want to feel considered, and you want to know that these products or ingredients may not be for your skin, and at least you know it can be grounded in fact and science,” says Ayodele. From a consumer standpoint, it comes back to feeling seen and trusting the brands you prioritise in your routine. “Why should you be loyal or trust a brand if they do not even see you as a viable enough customer to have been considered when testing their product,” Esho adds.
Why Is There an Inequality With Clinical Testing?
Racial injustice has run rampant within many industries throughout modern history: not just the beauty sector. These date back to colonisation and people of colour being considered secondary, but the long-term repercussions have seen cognitive biases contributing to a lack of representation and understanding within medical and cosmetic testing. “As a group, we are often ignored despite being one of the highest groups of spenders when it comes to beauty,” explains Dr Esho MD, founder of ESHO skincare and Esho Clinic to POPSUGAR.
As a result, there has been a lack of trust placed on the science industry by people of colour. Memories of Tuskegee, where hundreds of Black men were experimented on under false pretences, or the mistreatment of Henrietta Lack, who received unethical health care, means many carry the anxiety of ill diagnosis.
Without the industry taking its time to correct such traumatic mistakes, fear has been able to breed over the years. “Fear of treatment exists, and rather than addressing those fears and misconceptions, it was easier for many brands to ignore it, leading to the lack of visibility and representation,” says Dr Esho.
How Can Brands Become More Inclusive?
Many factors are at play to help navigate a more inclusive path between communities, companies, and brands. “Companies need to do extensive outreach with local communities, churches, or even barbershops. If lacking sufficiency, there will be a lack of representation,” says Dija. Brands need to be proactive and stop waiting for people of colour to highlight their lack of representation.
Although, Owusu believes the emphasis is also on BIPOC communities to meet companies halfway. “We should be putting ourselves forward to test products for these brands and asking brands for their clinical testing results,” she states.
There are a number of great platforms that advocate for this. The Centre of Evidence-Based Dermatology help to conduct independent research to prevent diseases. Similarly, London Trails and Be Part of Research offer databases to help locate local research centres conducting trials that the public can sign up to.
“More representation will mean a better problem-solving and efficacious product range,” concludes Dr Sharad. The change doesn’t just start with how many skin tones are reflected in a marketing campaign or how many influencers are brought on board to launch a product: the change is rooted in clinical foundations and actively testing products on all skin tones to ensure efficacy for all.