As a woman of color, you've always desired radiant, even-toned skin and healthy, fast-growing hair, but you may not have always had the facts and the guidance you need to look your best. Few books and magazines offer details about the skin and hair of women of color. The books that do offer only superficial, and sometimes inaccurate, information. To get the skin and hair you long for and deserve, you first need to become better acquainted with the skin you're in. As a woman of color, the better you understand what makes your skin and hair unique, the better you'll be able to care for your looks and uncover your natural beauty. In this chapter, you'll begin to learn about skin-of-color characteristics. Skin of color is quite different from white skin in many respects. Also, among women of color there is great variety of skin tones and types. As you gain a better understanding of the differences between skin of color and white skin, and what makes your skin distinct, you'll be able to make wiser decisions about your skin's care. With this knowledge you'll gain the power to look your best.

In Black and White: What Makes Skin of Color Different?

The distinctions between your skin of color and white skin are numerous. The most notable differences include:

More melanin, or brown skin pigment, resulting in a warmer skin shade
Greater natural protection from the sun and lower risk of skin cancer
Fewer visible signs of aging, such as deep wrinkles, fine lines, and sun spots
Potential problems with pigmentation, or uneven darkening or lightening of skin
Greater risk of keloid (raised, often large scars) development
Skin of Color Characteristics

Our skin is made up of three distinct layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the subcutaneous layer. The only visible layer, the epidermis, is composed mainly of keratinocytes -- cells that provide a protective barrier to the skin. The epidermis also contains melanocytes -- specialized cells that produce melanin, the brown pigment that gives our skin its rich color. These cells are present in the lowest sublayer of the epidermis, or the basal cell layer (see illustration, page 14). The primary purpose of the melanocyte cell is to make melanin.

Although all people have the same number of melanocyte cells, people of color have melanocytes that are capable of making large amounts of melanin. This increased melanin is what gives skin of color its warm shade. But there is no one type of skin of color. Among individual women of color, the amount of melanin varies dramatically, so that a woman with an abundance of melanin will have deep chocolate-brown skin tone, while a woman with less melanin will have vanilla skin tone. There are numerous shades -- an estimated thirty-five shades among women of African descent.

Melanin is not a static substance. That is why our skin changes color in response to various stimuli. Our melanocyte cells can produce more melanin if stimulated by the sun, medications, or certain diseases. The most obvious example of this is tanning, which occurs when our skin produces more melanin after sun exposure. Our skin may also darken in response to certain drugs such as minocycline, which is commonly used to treat acne, or in response to certain medical conditions such as Addison's disease (see "Melanin and Medicine," page 14, and "Melanin and Your Health," page 15, Our skin can also produce less pigmentation, or lightened areas, after a burn or other injury.

The melanin in our skin offers us certain other characteristics that are superior in many respects to white skin. Have you noticed that you look ten years younger than many of your White friends of the same age? This is because of your skin's greater melanin content. Our melanin has many significant health as well as beauty benefits. The most terrific advantage to having large amounts of melanin in the skin is that it protects skin from the damaging impact of the sun. It guards the skin from short-term effects such as severe sunburn (although our skin can burn under certain circumstances). Our melanin also guards our skin from long-term damage associated with aging -- the development of deep wrinkles, rough surface texture, and age spots (sometimes called liver spots).

Another advantage to having more melanin is that people of color are less susceptible to developing skin cancer, particularly the more common types known as basal and squamous cell skin cancers. The rate of skin cancer among African Americans, though significant, is many times lower than the rate for Whites. As women of color, we also have the advantage of possessing the naturally warm, glowing skin sought after by White women without having to go to the beach or a tanning salon.

However, we must accept the down sides as well. A disadvantage to having more melanin is that it makes our skin more "reactive." That means almost any stimulus -- a rash, scratch, pimple, or inflammation -- may trigger the production of excess melanin, resulting in dark marks or patches on the skin. These dark areas are the result of what is called postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. Less commonly, some Black women will develop a decrease in melanin or postinflammatory hypopigmentation in response to skin trauma (burns, etc.). In either case, the dark or light areas may be disfiguring and devastating for women who experience them, especially because the discolorations may take months or years to fade. That's why handling your skin gently, wearing sunscreen, and preventing pigmentation problems are keys to our skin care.

Skin of color is also more susceptible to developing certain conditions such as keloids, or large, raised scars that grow beyond the original site of injury. We are more likely to be affected by several different types of disfiguring bumps, such as razor bumps or bumps that occur in the back of the scalp called acne keloidalis nuchae.

Copyright © 2003 Susan C. Taylor, M.D.

The above is an excerpt from the book Brown Skin: Dr. Susan Taylor's Prescription for Flawless Skin, Hair, and Nails by Susan C. Taylor, M.D. (Published by Amistad; June 2003; $24.95US/$38.95CAN; 0-06-008871-0). At last -- a book devoted to the concerns of people of color that will help you enhance and protect the health and beauty of your skin, hair, and nails. Dr. Susan Taylor, a Harvard-trained dermatologist and a beautiful woman of color, bases her advice on more than fifteen years' experience treating patients in private practice and at the first-of-its-kind Skin of Color Center in New York City, which she directs.

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Author's Bio: 

Susan C. Taylor, M.D., is a Harvard-trained physician and an internationally recognized expert in dermatology and ethnic skin disease. She is the author of Brown Skin: Dr. Susan Taylor's Prescription for Flawless Skin, Hair, and Nails. Dr. Taylor lectures worldwide, has appeared on the Today Show and Weekend Today, and has been featured in Essence, Good Housekeeping, Heart and Soul, and other publications. Dr. Taylor helped establish and directs the Skin of Color Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, the first of its type in the nation. She is an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University, and an attending physician at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center and Pennsylvania Hospital. She maintains a private practice at Society Hill Dermatology in Philadelphia and lives with her family in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. For more information, please visit the website