Why has black been on the back burner of the beauty industry?
Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) make up the vast majority of today’s global population. Yet, when you walk into a makeup store, you see 50 shades of beige catering to a smaller percentage of makeup users with lighter skin tones, and there are only very few or no selections for darker complexions. Although using makeup and other cosmetics for aesthetic and ceremonial purposes has been an age-old practice across cultures, BIPOC still struggle to find a shade of foundation that matches their skin tone perfectly today.
What’s in a shade? Turns out, plenty—
“Is it that bad?” you ask. Well, here’s a list of a few issues facing BIPOC worldwide when looking for makeup products:
- The lack of visual representation in beauty campaigns makes it difficult for BIPOC to assess products suitable for them, as they rarely see an accurate visual to compare their complexion against.
- Most mainstream brands do not carry or have minimal options when it comes to very dark shades of foundation. This makes it difficult for individuals with darker complexions, like those of African or South Asian descent, to find a shade that matches them.
- Brands that do carry darker shades may not always stock them in stores. This forces a lot of BIPOC to make their purchases online, where swatching is not possible, and colors may be unreliable due to variations in photo quality or display. To them, picking makeup products involves a lot of guesswork, and the products will likely not yield favorable results.
- Some brands may present an “inclusive” line of products, like foundations, but not reflect that inclusivity in companion products, like concealers, contour pallets, highlighters, bronzers, setting powders, color correctors, etc.
- It is difficult to find shades for darker skin products that cater to yellow or olive undertones. Meanwhile, products marketed for cool undertones may still be too warm for certain deep skin tones.
- Products like lip colors, eyeshadows, blushes, etc., created for light skin tones do not suit darker tones well, as the lack of appropriate amounts of pigment may result in a washed-out look on the application. Nude and pastel shades flattering on fair skin may appear chalky and light on darker skin tones.
- The problem is not limited to makeup products. Skincare products, like sunscreen and moisturizers, tend to leave a white cast when applied over darker skin, creating a very ashy appearance.
… The list can go on and on. But what’s the reason behind all this?
An unfair game
As long as modern ideas of beauty have been around, BIPOC have faced what was essentially an outright erasure of their image from mainstream media. Dark complexions rarely appear in makeup advertisements, storefronts or magazine covers. To date, in regions of the world with relatively small white populations, like India, China, Korea and the Philippines, the beauty industry is heavily impacted by colorism, where pale skin has been considered a symbol of status and beauty.
Due to this general preference for fair skin, skin lightning treatments remain prevalent in these areas, and darker shades of makeup are rarely seen in stores, despite a vast section of makeup users being wheatish or darker in complexion. This stigma against dark skin is reflected in indie and drugstore brands in these regions.
The lack of BIPOC representation also extends into the corporate offices of these influential brands. Issued by Umoa Beauty founder Sharon Chuter in 2020 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing #PullUpOrShutUp challenge asked beauty industry stalwarts to publicly share the number of BIPOC employees they have and how many were in executive or leadership roles.
The answer? Hardly enough. As many of these brands have publicly acknowledged, there is much work to be done toward bringing more voices of color to the table.
How Fenty Beauty changed the game
In recent years, the representation of beauty as a diverse concept has made significant progress. When Barbadian singer, actress and businesswoman Rihanna launched her makeup brand Fenty Beauty in September 2017, it was the first time we saw a cosmetic brand committing to inclusivity and diversity. Claiming its motto to be “Beauty for All”, Fenty Beauty has been successfully delivering on that promise, with Fenty Beauty’s inclusive ad campaign featuring 50 models with skin tones ranging from really fair to really dark.
There was a massive stir in the beauty industry when the deep shades of the Fenty Filt’r foundation were sold out in stores and online only a few days after the launch. For the first time, the visual proof of the demand for dark skin products had made itself known in a big way. The phenomenon came to be widely known as “the Fenty Effect”.
Is inclusivity expensive?
According to the owner and president of Cosmetic Science Innovations, LLC, Al-Nisa Ward, all foundation shades are created from a combination of the same four pigments, namely titanium dioxide, iron oxide red, iron oxide yellow and iron oxide black. The variation in foundation shades is created by adjusting the ratio of each pigment—it doesn’t really incur a higher cost for brands to produce deeper shades.
Then why is such a sizable chunk of the market being neglected? Well, part of the issue stems from underrepresentation as mentioned above and, in part, from ingrained biases and lack of confidence among mainstream brands around the ability and willingness of BIPOC consumers to spend money on premium makeup products. It was simply not considered profitable to manufacture products for darker skin tones until Fenty proved otherwise.
The loss of one is the gain of another. Independent companies, many of them BIPOC owned, stepped in to fill the gap in the market that had been neglected by most major mainstream brands and harnessed the steadily growing purchasing power of BIPOC communities. In 2021, just Black Americans alone spent US$6.6 billion on beauty, which was around 11.1% of the total U.S. beauty market.
Leveling up the playing field
Brands, like Uoma Beauty, The Lip Bar, Mented Cosmetics, Juvias Place and Patrick Ta, have taken the initiative to create cosmetics that are flattering to a wide range of complexions. Hence, they are gradually gaining tremendous traction in the industry. The brand Beauty Bakerie even made headlines in 2018 when they numbered their products from darkest to lightest, with the darkest shade being #1 instead of the industry standard of starting with the palest shade.
In an otherwise underserved market, community-centric brands backed by influencers accountable to their audiences are likely to gain popularity and customer loyalty quickly. These individual brands differ significantly from traditional mainstream brands via their emphasis on social media and influencer marketing, as opposed to more traditional marketing formats, like ad campaigns, billboards and magazines. When viewers see influencers with similar features and complexions to themselves recommending a product, they will have an approximate idea of how it may look on them and are thus more likely to make a purchase.
Dark-skinned content creators, like MissDarci and Golloria on YouTube and MakeupbyMonicaa on TikTok, have contributed significantly to the rising popularity of inclusive brands. They are spreading awareness about how products from various brands in different shades can look on darker skin tones.
Golloria’s “The darkest shade” segment consisted of her trying the darkest shade of products, like foundations, concealers, blushes and lip shades, to demonstrate how they would look on cool or neutral-toned dark skin. MissDarci posts various forms of K-beauty-related content, like product reviews and demonstrations, for darker skin tones. MakeupbyMonicaa recently went viral for her informative videos about color theory and how it affects how different makeup shades look on different skin tones.
Availability and accessibility
“The big brands are mostly caucasian. They’re quite pale. So the brands make the majority of their products according to them. Darker skin tones have yellow, neutral or olive tones. We also commonly have melasma, which means we have a lot of colors. All these factors make it hard to get perfect shades of foundations, concealers and lipsticks,” says Saniya Chugh (@sanyachughmakeup on Instagram), a makeup artist practicing in Delhi, the capital of India and home to a highly diverse, multi-ethnic population.
When asked about the inclusive brands she recommends, Saniya listed off Mac, Juvias Place, Fenty Beauty, Rare Beauty, Huda Beauty, Patrick Ta and ONE SIZE. Products from these brands, while inclusive, are priced around US$25-50 on average. While these price points may be reasonable for seasoned makeup enthusiasts or makeup artists catering to a diverse range of clients, they might appear somewhat daunting to those who have just started their makeup journey or are on a budget.
Hence, accessibility to affordable products is essential in leveling up the playing field for individuals with darker complexions. For fair-skinned individuals, it’s always been relatively easy to purchase cheap makeup products in flattering shades. Consumers with darker skin tones would only have very limited drugstore options in the past. However, the range of budget products in inclusive shades has risen in recent years. Drugstore brands, like Elf, Maybelline, Lakme, and Cover Girl, are now catering to darker skin tones through their makeup ranges. These drugstore products average between US$5-20 and are much more affordable for the average consumer.
For many around the world, makeup is a form of expression. It is a tool that can lend immense confidence to the wearer. As such, it should not be an arduous task or a luxury for people to find the products they need. The goal of entrepreneurship in the beauty industry should remain to treat inclusivity as the standard but not the exception.
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