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Know Thy Brown Skin

How a Woman of Color Can Look Her Best

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By Dr. Susan C.Taylor

Updated February 18, 2004

Susan C. Taylor, M.D., author of Brown Skin: Dr. Susan Taylor's Prescription for Flawless Skin, Hair, and Nails, is a Harvard-trained physician and an internationally recognized expert in dermatology and ethnic skin disease. She 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. Below is an excerpt from her book.
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).

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