The Case for Diversity in Cosmetics


Why are so many foundation brands so limited in shades? (Photo: Jon Paterson)

Many black women can relate to concerns around cosmetics. If you’ve never experienced the struggle around finding complexion products that not only match your skin tone but are available when and where you need them, be assured the struggle is most certainly real. I watched as many of my beloved family members — including my mother — had to shop for makeup in the dark, dusty corners of drugstores, mixing products together to achieve something close to their own skin tone, or purchasing bottles of foundation that resulted in disappointing, ashen-grey masks. Relegated to aisles in the back of drugstores or traveling for miles to find the few retailers that would offer Fashion Fair cosmetics, I watched as my she-roes lamented the ability to buy makeup that flattered their various tones of skin.

We’ve truly come a long way since that time, but a simple fact remains: we still have a long way to go.

One of the great makeup evolutions for women of color came from supermodel Iman, who famously changed the cosmetics game from her own experiences. “I think it’s a well-known story, about how she would go to photo shoots where makeup artists would ask if she brought her own foundation,“ explains Desiree Reid, General Manager and Executive Vice President of Brand Development for Impala Brands, Inc., the holding company for IMAN Cosmetics. “What she found was the foundation on hand didn’t reflect who she was. As she says, her image was her currency, and if she didn’t have good photos, she wouldn’t be successful as a model. She started blending different foundations, taking pictures of herself, until she created something that worked for her, and from there other women asked her what makeup she used. That’s where the concept of this line was born.” The global success of IMAN Cosmetics started a greater conversation within the beauty industry that women of color had been having for years: the desire for makeup that looks like their skin, more so than a perception of their ethnicity.

When perusing makeup counters today, it appears as if every line has expanded their shade range to include women of color, but peer deeper into some formulations, and just beyond lies the grey mask of the past. “When we create color, the base pigment is actually white, and what a lot of brands do is add black to the base foundation shade to make it deeper,” explains Derek Selby, Global Brand Ambassador for Cover FX. But as we all know, black plus white equals gray. “In order to avoid gray, we add red and yellow pigments in order for it to look richer and deeper. When you look at darker skin, there is no gray; there’s a warmth to it. Most brands take their middle-of-the-line shade for Caucasians and just add black to it to make it darker. They never test it on real skin, and that’s why you have gray undertones. To me, they don’t care enough to look after those consumers. We go straight to the markets and test these products on real women, whose opinions we really hear and respect.”

Reid agrees that some brands have not resolved their challenging product formulation from the past. “For many years, cosmetics was a smaller portion of the beauty conversation than hair. Companies narrowed the view of beauty into ethnic categories: black, white, Asian, Hispanic. We stand by Iman’s philosophy, which is that nobody owns beauty; it’s such a subjective thing. The perspective of ‘what is beautiful’ changes from person to person and across the globe.” She says that a limited selection of makeup shades has caused consumers to put pressure on brands to expand, and it may finally start to make a difference. “Most brands have kept the product ranges smaller, but now the conversation has changed. Buyers and retailers are responding to customer demand and desire for a wider range of foundation products.”

The good news: many brands are responding to that overwhelming customer demand by adding those much-needed realistic undertones to products that create that individual standard of beauty that’s so desirable. “We offer those pink, neutral, or golden undertones, even at that deepest, richest color because they exist,” confirms Selby. “We’re creating a color that matches the complexion of a real person rather than creating it in the lab and trying to get people to make it work. There is black pigment in our darker shades, but it’s balanced with warmth and dimension.”

Beyond brands such as IMAN, Cover FX, and Black Opal leading the complexion product market, other cosmetics houses have focused on expanding their lines to embrace the demands of skin of color, including Becca Cosmetics, Lancôme, NARS Cosmetics, COVERGIRL, MAC Cosmetics, Estee Lauder, and MAKE UP FOR EVER, whose creator, Dany Sanz, has always taken a more global view when creating makeup. “Achieving a perfect complexion requires perfect knowledge of the skin and colorimetric expertise,” she says. “In order to create shades to suit all skin tones, I started by working with my makeup artist friends from different origins, creating colors that would suit them. I noticed pigment blending differs by shade, and I work with color experts to ensure they provide the best performance. Even today, thirty-two years since I started MAKE UP FOR EVER, I still carry out tests for every shade of skin in real conditions. The amount of work and care that goes into creating each shade is like creating a brand new product each time.”

The brands who put love into extensive product formulation and testing are winning in the marketplace, and it’s the customer reaction that really delights and drives them to succeed. “Having a customer say ‘I can’t see it. Where did it go?’ is so rewarding,” explains Ashley Rudder, Senior Artist for MAC Cosmetics, who touts the brand’s Matchmaster SPF 15 Foundation as one of the innovators for the wide range of skin tones that represent women of color. “People are used to something being a little ‘off’ about the product, so when we show them our range of shades and undertones they’re so pleasantly surprised. Skin is part of your identity, and to find a match that brings out the best in who you are creates that deep love and loyalty.”

Makeup for women of color goes beyond the complexion, with brands paying attention to another concern: lip undertone paired with natural lip lines ranging from pink to deep, beautiful shades of plum and berry. The quest for a nude lip tends to leave many women faced with lip products still tailored for a Caucasian complexion, but with so many offerings, you can almost ignore them completely. “Expand your vision of what a nude lip has to be,” says Raquel Grijalva, makeup stylist for NARS Cosmetics. “It doesn’t always have to be the color of your skin: it could be mauve, peach, or plum-based. For really dark tones, a deeper, brown-based plum creates a beautiful base for a nude lip. For example, Bolero Matte Lip Pencil as a base under Tiber Larger Than Life Lip Gloss (both $26) is a perfect, classic combination for women with darker skin that won’t appear milky or too light on the lip. Look for products that really enhance your own natural hue.” Brands are responding to the desire for a wider range of nude lip looks, with IMAN soon launching a wide nude lip range for their loyal following.

Color cosmetics such as eyeshadows and lipsticks have also come a long way, with a wide range of ethnicities racing toward cult-favorite brand Urban Decay’s expansive range of pigmented shadows, liners, and perpetually sold-out Naked palettes. “We’ve always embraced multicultural beauty, and I love creating highly-pigmented colors, which work well on a range of skin tones,” says Wende Zomnir, the brand’s Chief Creative Officer and co-founder. “It’s been great to see all the makeup artists on Instagram of all these skin tones and ethnicities and seeing how they express themselves. It’s enlightening and really inspiring. It gives us the freedom to create more experimental products.” Zomnir says social media, YouTube, and the selfie generation has played an integral role as well. “Social media has changed the conversation so much around beauty and makeup. “Five to six years ago, people would have regarded a grey-undertone lipstick with trepidation, but now they can see someone with their skin tone showing them how to use it and make it look good. I think it’s been great for multicultural beauty; it leads the way with self-expression.”

Now more than ever, it is the voice of the customer and the vote with the wallet leading brands to respond. “If you look at the distribution and brands that are in the retailers, there’s still a disparity,” says Reid. “80% of the brands represent a non-ethnic skin tone, and you may only find another 20% that do. Customers are demanding that wider range of products where they shop, and that’s really where the shift has to come. The retailers are listening. The more vocal the customer, the more responsive the brands and retailers will be.” But where brick-and-mortar retailers are lagging behind, the rise of online shopping has laid the market wide open for access and brand competition. If a woman of color can’t find her shade in the store, she can open a browser and spend her hard-earned dollar on the shades that suit her best.

As women of color with a broad swatch of racial backgrounds, ethnicities, and a blend of skin tones and cultural experiences, our demand for beauty brands that suit our individuals needs continues to be vocalized loud and clear. Every tweet, every Instagram post, every comment, every complaint is now heard. Where historically we had to accept what was created, we realize the material power and authority to acknowledge when a brand means to serve or disregard. With every product launch and complexion shade created, we come one step further to a world where our faces can shine toward the sun, with individual beauty and product equity for all.


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