The internet really has a way of removing all nuance from any conversation and I've noticed lately that a lot of reasonable advice has been twisted into scare-mongering specifically in relation to skin of colour. Often 'I prefer to use x for deeper skin tones' gets translated into demonising everything else and the conversation really lacks critical thinking. I personally get my information from a range of sources and encourage you to do the same: follow a bunch of cosmetic formulators, estheticians, dermatologists and product reviewers and take in a range of opinions to form your own. These are the conclusions I've come to based on doing that process for myself...
It's often advised that glycolic acid should not be used on skin of colour and whilst it's not my favourite exfoliating acid for myself, I think that is twisting things slightly. Most of the community seems to agree that up to a 5% concentration of glycolic acid is fine for most people to use in their skincare routine (unless you specifically have issues with this ingredient). As glycolic acid has a very small molecular size, it can penetrate the skin very quickly and cause irritation, which leads to inflammation and therefore hyperpigmentation. However, there are still dermatologists and estheticians who will use much higher concentrations on skin of colour in professional settings based on their assessment of the individual person's needs. Ultimately, it's quite a personal thing: if you have skin of colour and love a glycolic acid product and you think it helps your skin, then don't feel you have to stop. If you're very prone to hyperpigmentation, you might want to stick to 5% and if you want to go for a proper peel then just leave it to the professionals.
All that being said: I personally find glycolic can be a little irritating for my skin, so it's not my go-to chemical exfoliant. If you find your skin doesn't get on with it or the evenness of your skin tone isn't improving since incorporating glycolic acid into your routine: there are other options. I personally love lactic acid and PHAs, which both have a larger molecular size and hydrating properties, or mandelic acid has a large molecular size, antibacterial benefits and can be specifically good for treating discolouration. Or, you could even go for a blend that contains a lower concentration of glycolic alongside other exfoliants that deliver a wider range of benefits to your skin.
One of the more recent 'rules' I've heard is that People of Colour should avoid chemical sunscreens. I find this doubly annoying because most mineral sunscreens will leave a white cast on deeper skin tones. The logic is that some chemical filters can be irritating to the skin and that leads into inflammation which in turn causes hyperpigmentation. Again: I think you know your skin and if you find that almost every chemical sunscreen is causing a degree of irritation to your skin then definitely see if you can find a mineral-based product that works for you (possibly a tinted formula). I also think there's a distinction to be made based on where you live. The FDA in the USA that approves sunscreen filters is very slow and hasn't approved the sorts of filters that are used in European, Asian and Australian sunscreens. These newer filters were designed to be lighter, leave less of a cast and cause less irritation, so if you're using a sunscreen made with them then I don't think you need to worry so much. Ultimately, sunscreen is only effective if you use it and use it correctly, so I personally think that applying a modern, lightweight, cast-free chemical sunscreen that your skin likes beats underapplying a mineral formula to avoid a cast because you've been told that's what you should do.
Related to the glycolic acid guidance is the idea that physical exfoliants cause micro tears in the skin which will lead to hyperpigmentation. Whilst I don't love physical exfoliation and I don't recommend using apricot or walnut scrubs (made with natural particles, which lack uniformity), I don't think they're a blanket 'no' for everyone, especially not if you're using the scrub on your body (I like it for my knees and elbows in particular). Whilst it's not my regular means of exfoliation, if I have a surface patch of dry skin (I get this on my nose a lot during the winter, for example) I feel like it's fine to use a micro-exfoliant when and where I need it. I wouldn't be vigorously scrubbing every morning, but I'm sure if you're reading this blog then you know I think most people exfoliate too regularly and too aggressively!
Hydroquinone has been a prescription topical in the UK for a long time and it now is in the US, I believe, so we're starting from the premise that you're only going to get this if you've consulted with a dermatologist (it's obviously found in dodgy skin lightening creams, but I'm sure you don't need me to tell you to avoid illegal bleaching products...) This ingredient is designed to lighten areas of hyperpigmentation but used for prolonged periods it can cause rebound hyperpigmentation and actually make the issue worse. This is why it's important that hydroquinone use is monitored by a dermatologist and you will only get a limited supply of it. If you feel more comfortable then definitely find a dermatologist who specialises in skin of colour, though it's not unheard of for them to prescribe this as a treatment, even if it's just to spot-apply it to areas of discolouration that are particularly difficult to shift. I think that's probably the takeaway: it's a strong prescription topical that's usually deployed in the most extreme cases where other options have failed.
I guess this is a controversial topic in skincare in general! Whilst contact dermatitis is a risk when using fragrance, it's important to be aware that you can develop allergies to anything at any time. Fragrance is a bit more likely as we're so exposed to it in our everyday lives, but I honestly think it depends on your views on how prevalent this is in the population vs. how much you want to use certain products. When it comes to skin of colour, again it circles back to potential irritation causing discolouration in the skin. I really think that you know your skin: if it's easily irritated, it's obviously not worth it to use a product containing fragrance when you're going to have to deal with potentially months of hyperpigmentation that's difficult to shift. If your skin is fine: I wouldn't panic! I think there are always middle grounds with these things too, so if you have a cleanser you like to use that contains fragrance but your prefer to go with a fragrance-free moisturiser that's going to sit on the skin, then do that!
Besides the obvious propensity to tan as opposed to burn, the difference you should probably be mindful of is that skin that's richer in melanin tends to have lower levels of ceramides, an essential fatty component of our skin barriers. This means you might notice your skin gets drier. Personally, from childhood I've always had moisturising my body really emphasised as an important thing to do, so when I went to uni and realised that most of my white friends didn't see body cream as essential, it really surprised me! In terms of facial skincare, just be mindful that at least overnight you're probably going to want a nice, fatty moisturiser (and if you're oily, it's totally possible to find a more lightweight take on this).
Have you come across any of these 'rules' and do you follow any of them?
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