Defining a “person of color” can be challenging. Everyone has different experiences regarding their race and ethnicity, and all experiences are valid. Unfortunately, there is a harmful history behind assigning attributes to one particular group, though we commonly think of “people of color” as those with more pigmented skin tones. Still, there is such a great variation in pigmentation among people from every ethnicity and race, which further adds to the confusion behind this term. So, how do we define a “person of color”?

The Skin Report is a podcast created to educate listeners on methods to improve skin health for people of all ethnicities and ages. On this episode, host Dr. Sethi discusses the term “people of color” and how it relates to the science behind our skin, genes, and environments. People of color generally possess a greater presence of melanin, which is vital in protecting the skin. Dr. Sethi explains the role of melanin in our skin, how the Fitzpatrick Scale is used in clinical dermatology, and how the skincare industry has historically promoted unhealthy practices that work against melanin production. Finally, she educates listeners on how people of color can navigate skin cycling to work with their melanin, not against it.

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This transcript was exported on August 30, 2022 -view latest version here.

Skincare can sometimes feel overwhelming, whether it’s finding the right products, ingredients, or treatments. There’s a lot out there, but not always for women of color. That’s why I set out to educate myself and others so that we can all feel beautiful in our skin.

Hello, and welcome to the Skin Report. I’m Dr. Simran Sethi, an internal medicine doctor, mom of three, and CEO and founder of RenewMD Medical Spas, and Skin by Dr. Sethi. We’re going to do something a little different. In fact, for the entiremonth of September, we’ll be doing a deep dive into the relationship between people of color and the skincare industry, the past, the present, and the future. For this episode, we’ll examine what it means to be a person of color, not just as part of our identity and even our biology, but also our experience when it comes to skincare and the beauty industry as a whole. Today, we’ll lay the foundation for the entire four part series, so be sure to stick around.

How do we define a person of color? Well, there’s a lot of complexity behind that one question. Before we truly dig into its many layers, I want to first say that one person can truly force or gate keep an identity for someone else. Everyone has different experiences, and all experiences are valid. Additionally, I recognize that assigning attributes to one particular group has a long history of profiling. However, I will be talking more about the science behind our skin, genes, and environments.

Unfortunately, most definitions of a person of color is someone who is not white. However, this still positions people of color as having an absence of something, and quite literally, whiteness. Instead, I’d like to think of our skin as having a greater presence of something else. You guessed it, melanin. I feel that reframing people of color as individuals who possess instead of lack brings a more positive perspective to the table. It opposes a narrative that darker skin is something we should lighten. Or in other words, change something that is so integral to usin our culture.

Despite the long and vicious history of America and Western European countries trying to impose white supremacy in both obvious and in subtle ways, the science supports why melanin is not only necessary, but beautiful. After this episode, I hope you will learn how melanin protects the skin from the elements and from aging.

In our second episode of the Skin Report, we discussed how melanin impacts the skin. I highly recommend going back and listening to that episode again. For now, I’d like to expand upon some of the points I made.

Contrary to what some believe, every single person has the same amount of pigment producing cells, otherwise known as melanocytes. In part, this is why some with lighter skin can still tan. Their skin is respondingto sun exposure with pigmentation. In darker skin tones, however, these cells will produce more pigment as a result of UV exposure than in lighter skin tones.

Let’s make this a little more concrete than just light and dark skin, as there is such a great variation in pigmentation among people from every ethnicity and race. If you recall from episode five, we discussed how to determine your skin type and tone to gain a better understanding of your skin’s individual needs. I highly recommend going back and checking out that episode. In it, we utilize the Fitzpatrick scale, which is a classification for skin tone using six categories or skin types, types one through six. This is not to be confused with oily or dry type of skin. So if you hear me use “type” followed by a number, such as type three skin, please know that I’m referring to the Fitzpatrick scale and skin tone.

The Fitzpatrick scale was introduced in academia in 1975 as a way of classifying how different skin tones respond to UV rays. In general, types one through three are considered paler skin tones, while darker skin tones fall under types four through six. Lighter skin tones falling in the type one through three category do not produce a lot of melanin, which means they will burn relatively quicklywhen exposed to prolonged sunlight. The lighter the skin tone, the faster it will burn if exposed to continuous sunlight. Darker skin tones that belong to the skin type four through six category produce more melanin, and we’ll get more tan when in the sun, instead of getting a sunburn. It would take a really long time in direct sunlight to make a person with skin type four or five get a sunburn, while a skin type one can get sunburn in a mere 30 minutes.

The Fitzpatrick scale is now generally used in clinical dermatology when assessing the safety of skincare products and treatments. Our reaction to skin insults such as UV rays can result in a larger variety of pigmentation. But to further understand this, we need to go deeper. We need to go under the surface of our skin.

Before we discuss how our melanin works, we must discuss the structure of our skin. You may remember that our skin is comprised of three layers. The epidermis as the outermost layer, the dermis, and the hypodermis as the deepest layer. When we spoke on medical grade skincare in episode seven, and then again in our FDA episode, we touched on how drugstore brands tend to work only with the outermost layer, the epidermis. Medical grade, however, can penetrate to the deeper layers with the signs to prove it. I bring up this point to reiterate that our skin is an interconnected network. It is an organ that has evolved to protect us from pathogens, chemical and physical threats, and the sun.

Melanin, like every other cell in our body, has a functionand a purpose to help keep us alive and thriving. When our skin is exposed to UV rays, our melanocytes produce melanin, which absorbs the rays, but filters them from entering the dermis and damaging the layer of our skin that produces essential skin proteins like collagen and elastin. So the more pigmentation in your skin, the more natural protection you have. But again, skin cancer forms on the epidermis, which is why it’s always important to wear sunscreen. While every person, regardless of skin tone, should wear sunscreen, melanin does block some of the UV rays to a certain point.

Now, let me reiterate that this natural protection that melanin gives us is very important. Melanin helps to protect the deeper layers of the skin, mainly the dermis, where genetic material is stored in our cells, and from where we produce the important cell proteins that give our skin its integrity. Collagen protein, which many people hear a lot about in skincare, helps give skin its strength, while elastin protein gives skin elasticity, and is the protein responsible for helping skin stay tight and firm. This is exactly why people with more melanated skin tones, like skin tones four and greater, have a lesser tendency to develop fine lines and skin sagging; while lighter skin tones start experiencing age related collagen breakdown as early as in their twenties. These differences are simply because of how much UV damage is filtered by our protective melanin. The dermis is an important layer, and melanin is essential in keeping itintact so that people can have naturally healthy and youthful looking skin.

Next, we need to understand where melanin works. Melanocytes produced melanin in our epidermis, the top layer of our skin, which is why there are physical pigmentary changes when we are exposed to the sun. However, sun exposure is not the only thing that stimulates melanin production. Melanin also react to any type of skin insult, such as acne, cuts, and more, and can leave behind hyperpigmentation, stubborn acne scars, and more.

While all skin types can experience these skin issues, darker skin tones tend to have more lasting effects of excess melanin. This is exactly why people with darker skin tones and acne will complain of a dark spot that is left behind, even though the blemish cleared months ago. Darker skin types may also be plagued with other pigment challenges and conditions, such as melasma, which we discussed in our previous episode and will be discussed in more detail in upcoming episodes.

The skincare industry has historically, especially in the Eastern hemisphere, demonized melanin, and in a way, taught darker skin tones to try to fight melanin production by promoting products that are focused on bleaching the skin. Skin bleaches can range from very acidic formulations to high concentrations or pharmaceuticals like hydroquinone. These skincare practices have been going on for so long that today we have the benefit of learning what is wrong with them.

One of my greatest goals as a physician in aesthetics who primarily works with people with my darker skin tone is to shift this thinking and to start respecting our melanin. Fighting melanin production, in most cases, aggravates melanocytes, and creates more inflammation. Instead, an approach that is focused on all steps of our natural skin renewal cycle will calm melanocytes and allow them to produce normal amounts of melanin instead of excessive quantities that lead to dark spots or skin color unevenness.

If you’d like to hear more broadly about the skin cycle, check out ourvery first episode. When we return, we’ll address how women of color can navigate skin cycling to work with their melanin, not against it.

Skin cycling, or the skin care approach that keeps their skin cycle in mind, looks somewhat different for each person. We must keep in mind our age, skin type, and our melanin to avoid hyperpigmentation and drying out the skin with harsh products. Skin cycling could look like a regimen of gentle exfoliation and cleansing, nourishment with collagen building products likevitamin C, and constant protection from UV rays and blue light. Finally, at night, when our skin is in repair mode, adding a retinol will accelerate skin cell turnover and new skin production.

As you can already see, this is a very different approach thanjust washing skin and applying a high concentration hydroquinone or lightning product on the skin, along with sunblock. I say this because I have learned from my more melanated patients that this is a very common skin care routine. Clearly, it’s not one that works, because it leads people to frustration, and in most cases, worsening of their pigmentation.

At this point, I also want to point out that exfoliation is something that people with more melanated skin tones should pay careful attention to. As we spoke about in episode 14, exfoliants can be harsh for people of color, causing micro tears and drying out the skin. First, a lot of companies market strong chemical exfoliants as skin lighteners or brighteners, which in most cases are too harsh for darker skin tones. Second, even large particle mechanical exfoliants like face scrubs or face brushes when used too frequently can actually aggravate skin and produce more pigmentation. I highly recommend listening to episode 14 of the Skin Report above everything else, as the type of exfoliant, its ingredients, and how often you use it can either bring you glowing or damaged skin.

In summary, when it comes to exfoliation, people of color would benefit most from a chemical exfoliant with a very low concentration of the active ingredient. For a physical exfoliant, you should lean towards those with smaller particles. This exfoliation will prep your skin to absorb the remainder of your products more effectively and give the skin a more polished appearance if done correctly.

The other product that I see a lot of people of color shy away from is retinol, which is a shame because it has so many benefits and is very effective if used properly. Retinols are notorious for causing dryness, redness, and skin peeling, which can lead to hyperpigmentation in darker skin. However, darker skin can use retinol and absolutely should, but with a few different strategies. First, start slow. When using a retinol, start with a medium dose of 0.5%, and use it a few times a week only at night for a month to allow the skin to get used to it. As your skin gets used to the retinol, you can bump up usage to every other night for a month, and even daily a month later. Additionally, applying a moisturizing serum on top of the retinol will help counteract the dryness that is normally caused by it.

The problems associated with retinol use, really in all skin types, are actually what directed the formulation of the retinol in my skin care line. My line’s Retinol Lipid Complex is a combination of retinol with lipids to deliver all the benefits of retinol without the irritation, and is safe to use on all skin types daily at night.

We just covered some common product myths and safe uses so that people of color can finally stop fighting and aggravating their melanin. And instead, comet and build healthier, more radiant, and clearer skin. It’s a process and may take some adjustment, some trial and error, or even a consultation with an aesthetician who specializes in working with different skin tones. But finding the right routine for you that helps your skin cycle can make all the difference.

I’ve thrown a lot of information at you today. Some of it you may have already known, while some, I hope, has brought you a sense of empowerment. There are many things that define people of color. Our ethnicity, our community, what we love, and what we do. And there’s a lot that we can do. In 2019 alone, women of color started 90% of all businesses that year. In fact, 260 black women opened a business each day. In the past 10 years, Hispanic women-owned businesses increased by 172%. In the five years leading up to the pandemic, Asian American women-owned businesses grew by 37% according to State of Women-Owned Business Report. We also know that according to the US Census Bureau, Asian-owned businesses generated over $860 billion in 2021.

Women of color are powerful. We make waves despite the rough waters we sometimes have to navigate. Next week, we’ll be discussing our second topic in the September series, what the industry has done and why it’s not working for people of color. If you would like to check out the other episodes mentioned today, you can find the link in our show notes below.

If you’d like to learn more about science backed skincare, or medical aesthetic treatments, please subscribe to and turn on notifications for the Skin Report, so you always know when a new episode is up. We have a newsletter that you can sign up for on so that you can stay up to date on all our new episodes, blogs, products, and more. Additionally, if you have a skincare question, or want to make an episode topic recommendation, please message me at, which is linked in my show notes, and I’ll be sure to answer your question in an episode soon. Thanks for listening in until next time. Love the skin you’re in, and celebrate your beauty.

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