Retinol Is Still The It Girl Of Skin Care. But Does It Work Well On Darker Skin?

Black skin care experts weigh in.
It's always good to consult an expert on products for your specific concerns.
Larysa Vdovychenko via Getty Images
It's always good to consult an expert on products for your specific concerns.

Despite the onslaught of skin care products that fall in and out of favour, retinol has stubbornly persisted. I’ve always been hesitant to try anything with retinol in it because not every product on beauty lists is made with darker skin tones in mind.

Several years ago, however, my dermatologist prescribed a common retinol-adjacent medicine, Tretinoin, to treat my moderate acne. He instructed me to use a “small amount” and sent me on my way. I followed the instructions on the label: Apply to the affected area twice daily. And while it did clear up bumpy whiteheads, I also developed dry white patches and discolouration on my chin, around my mouth and on my cheeks. It was a very unpleasant side effect.

For the uninitiated, retinol is a Vitamin A derivative commonly used for treating acne and to reduce the look of aging. Tretinoin uses a synthetic version of Vitamin A and is reported to be slightly stronger; it’s also the most commonly prescribed “retinol” product.

After two weeks, I gave up and assumed that retinoids ― the umbrella term for Vitamin A-based products ― did not work well on Black and brown skin. But after doing a little research, I saw that many beauty influencers of colour have used retinol products successfully. What gives?

When I shared my personal experience with Dr. Angela J. Lamb, a dermatologist and director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice in New York, she explained that building up to the recommended dosage is crucial, especially on skin of colour. When she recommends any retinol regimen to her patients, she instructs them to start with a pea-sized amount of the medicine for their entire face and then increase from there if it’s working well.

“I always start them on the lowest dose, and then I also have them apply it on top of moisturiser because you often need a barrier while your skin is getting used to it,” she says. I loved the idea of a gentle, protective cocktail versus a straight-up slather.

Lamb is among a relatively small number of Black dermatologists in the U.S. ― they make up 3% of all U.S. dermatologists — and I found her to be profoundly knowledgeable on the topic of nurturing darker skin tones and all the beautiful caveats that accompany our complexions. To be fair, all board-certified dermatologists learn about treating people of all skin tones and types, but the lack of representation in dermatology is also why many skin conditions that Black and brown people experience go under-treated or undiagnosed. It’s so frustrating that many of us turn to natural remedies that are not backed by research and can sometimes cause more harm to our bodies.

Tiara Willis, a New York City-based aesthetician and skin educator, tells me that most of her clients are Black women, specifically ones dealing with skin corrective issues. Many of Willis’ clients have been prescribed cream with retinoids. “What I found was they didn’t really know how to use it. So not that Tretinoin is bad, but it’s an intense medication,” she explains.

Retinoids have been around since the 1970s and have been associated with some of dermatology’s original acne research. There are different brand names and compound names, but much of the basic science is the same. Lamb explains they are lauded as a great preventative acne treatment because they accelerate skin cell turnover so that sticky skin cells aren’t able to pile up, clog your pores and cause acne. They are also believed to increase collagen production, which reduces the appearance of wrinkles.

Lamb and Willis agree that there is a lot of good, consistent science behind the medicine and it is ideal for all skin complexions — when used correctly, of course. It can also help balance out uneven skin tone or pigmentation issues many Black and brown people experience because of the abundance of melanin in our skin. “There are so many benefits to Tretinoin we really do try to get people to be able to tolerate it. If they can’t, there are alternatives,” Lamb said.

Another retinoid option is Differin gel, which as of 2016 is available over the counter. I vaguely remember the TV commercials — back when you needed a prescription for it — where an already porcelain-skinned actress would daintily dot on the clear gel with her fingertips as the camera panned to a white and green tube. It made me wonder if the products we can get without a prescription are simply less effective dupes.

“Over-the-counter retinol is just equally as effective; it can just take longer to get results [when] compared to a prescription,” explains celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden. Ten years ago, Darden, who has contributed to the eternally ethereal glow of Kelly Rowland, created her own products to provide clients with all the beautifying effects of prescription retinol minus the harsh side effects. The most recent is a serum that contains a mix of supplementary compounds such as lactic acid and apple extract. Darden tells me that the goal of adding these, in particular, is to create a slower, controlled release of the retinol’s properties. She recommends using retinoids only at night (as many skin experts do), which makes sense since that is when the body does most of its repairing.

And because prescription retinol can disrupt the skin’s natural moisture barrier and make the skin dry and irritated, it might benefit some of us ― those with darker skin tones and/or sensitive skin ― to try the Retinol-lite route first. And a little guidance from a professional is always best if you have that option.

“If you’re new to retinoids and are intrigued by high-potency or prescription-grade options, a session with a dermatologist will be the best place to start,” said Deborah Kilgore, global director of skin care knowledge at Paula’s Choice. “This advice is true for everyone but it’s particularly important for darker skin tones which can be more susceptible to irritations that could escalate into issues, like post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.”

So it turns out that it’s totally fine for people of my skin tone to use retinol — I just need to take a more cautious approach. It should be noted that there are vegan retinol options, but retinoids shouldn’t be used while pregnant or breastfeeding. Also, dermatologists recommend everyone give the treatment a break two weeks prior to waxing, chemical peels, micro-needling or laser hair removal treatments.

Last thing for all my fellow brown-skinned girlies (of all genders): Resist conducting TikTok-inspired experiments, including the one where you can supposedly regrow stressed edges and receding hairlines by combining Tretinoin with minoxidil. If you’re curious about something you see online, ask a dermatologist.

Retinol might just be the It Girl of skin care even for darker skin tones — especially when used in conjunction with patience and sunscreen (the compounds can cause photosensitivity). “While melanin-rich skin does boast innate sun-protecting properties, this defence is minimal at best,” Kilgore adds. “By applying sunscreen liberally and daily, you’re not just protecting against the sun’s potential harms but also guarding against future concerns including skin cancer.”

Will I give retinol another chance this fall and winter? Absolutely ― and I’ll be slathering my face with a nice moisturiser first. Whoever said Black and brown don’t crack was only half right. We have to be selective when choosing our products and build sustainable regimens that enhance our timeless glow.