We all get acne at some point in our lives. It’s practically universal. But how it affects our skin depends on so many things—including age, skin tone and skin color. This means if you’re an adult with Black or brown skin dealing with acne, you might have even bigger challenges finding a solution that works for your unique needs. But don’t worry, we’ve got you. We spoke to Dr. Dina Strachan about the unique needs of Black and brown acne-prone skin. Strachan is an internationally recognized Harvard- and Yale-educated board-certified dermatologist in New York City, with a faculty appointment at NYU. She also has expertise in treating acne in patients with all skin types and tones.
The biggest challenge for people with darker skin is that they tend to get post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation with their acne, said Dr. Strachan. In fact, hyperpigmentation is the main issue she faces in treating adult acne in Black and brown patients.
Hyperpigmentation is when skin becomes darker in color in a specific spot. It shows up when excess melanin, the brown pigment that produces normal skin color, forms deposits in the skin. It can affect the skin of people of any race. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation develops as a result of skin injury or inflammation—like breakouts.
“Patients often come in complaining [about hyperpigmentation] and don't understand that they actually have acne that’s causing it,” explained Dr. Strachan. Her recommendations for those patients focus on helping hyperpigmentation go away fast: “because the acne lasts two weeks, while post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can last nine months.”
“70% of women of color felt that their race/ethnicity/skin type required targeted attention—attention that many traditional acne solutions just don’t provide.”
That scarring can add to the irritation of treating the acne that caused it in the first place. Anyone who had acne as a teen knows how frustrating it can be to find a treatment that actually works. And as we age, the needs of our skin change. This means the solutions that worked for us in high school may suddenly stop.
Adults with acne can benefit from gentler cleansing solutions because their skin often isn’t as oily as most adolescents. “A lot of people with acne also have a condition called seborrheic dermatitis,” which is basically dandruff, Dr. Strachan explained. “It makes your skin more sensitive.” That’s right. Face dandruff—just when you thought it couldn’t get worse.
The struggle is especially real for women of color—for whom dryness is a particular problem. One study showed that 70% of women of color felt that their race/ethnicity/skin type required targeted attention—attention that many traditional acne solutions just don’t provide.
“Most over-the-counter formulations contain drying and irritating ingredients that are truly geared mostly for durable teenage skin and not ideal for anyone with more mature skin or sensitive skin,” explained BalmLabs’ Chief Dermatologist, Dr. Robin Schaffran. Before co-founding Balm Labs, Schaffran struggled to find a topical solution that could work for all her clients—especially those with melanin-rich skin. Because in addition to being harsh and drying, for people with Black and brown skin, those irritating over-the-counter acne ingredients led to worsening hyperpigmentation from irritation. Basically, these women in their 30s and 40s were struggling with the familiar physical and mental discomfort that comes with acne at any age, but with no good solutions to address it.
“ClearBalm was formulated exclusively looking to ingredients that had been proven to be safe and effective on all skin tones, including black and brown skin tones. This was one of the reasons we added Bixa Orellana Seed Extract to the formulation,” said Dr. Schaffran. BalmLabs prioritized simplicity when developing their formulations, only using ingredients that were effective yet gentle (non-irritating) and ensuring that all the ingredients worked well together.
Dr. Strachan, who tried ClearBalm early in the life of the brand, describes it as, “one of the most calming skincare lines that I have used in years.” “Yet effective,” she added. “I don't know how else to describe it. My skin was happy.” Dr. Strachan recommends it to her patients looking for gentler, natural topical treatments, including CBD, who haven’t responded well to over-the-counter options.
The one thing Dr. Strachan wishes more of her patients understood is that acne can be a chronic condition, which requires ongoing care. It’s something you may have your entire life.
So, while people with Black and brown skin may have unique needs, there are solutions out there—but they need to be part of a consistent routine chosen to directly address the needs of your skin.