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Understanding Darker Skin Tones

Posted: May 21, 2010

Despite prevailing misconceptions, if you’ve got darker skin, you’re not immune to the effects of sun damage and premature aging. While the rules of cleanse, moisturize and SPF apply to everyone, darker tones do need unique care. Mona Gohara, MD, assistant clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine department of dermatology in New Haven, CT, a key promoter of skin care awareness and sun safety in non-Caucasian populations, explains the chemistry and concerns of darker skin.

1. What is the basic skin biology of people of color?

There are three layers that comprise the human skin: the epidermis, the dermis and fat. Within the epidermis there are pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes produce melanin, which is the substance that confers skin color. People all have the same number of melanocytes, regardless of complexion--the browner you are, the more melanin you are producing. In short, melanin determines skin color. Melanin has many different functions in human skin. Most importantly, it provides inherent protection against the sun and is a natural antioxidant.

2. What are some of the common skin issues affecting people with darker skin tones? Are these issues different than people with lighter skin tones and if so, why?

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is a condition that occurs more frequently in individuals with darker skin. It is localized skin darkening that occurs after trauma or inflammation. For example, when people of color get a pimple, for some reason melanocytes rev up and produce more melanin. As a result, when the lesion fades, the skin gets darker. The same phenomenon applies for cuts, bruises and resolving rashes. To treat PIH, you need to use an SPF of 30 or higher every day, and give it time. Other remedies such as hydroquinones, retinol, glycolic acid and chemical peels can also help speed up the process.