Skin is the human body’s largest organ. In fact, it accounts for about 15% of a person’s body weight. Not only does it cover your entire body, manage your temperature, and help you detect hot and cold, but it’s also one of the first lines of defense against harmful ultraviolet radiation, infection, and disease. It’s a protective barrier that keeps you healthy.
That's why taking care of it is not just about looks. Like any other organ, skin can develop problems. Most skin conditions can affect any person, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity. But certain skin conditions are more likely to happen or show up differently in people of color. This is often due to genetics and in some cases, specific cultural practices and routines. “People of color” traditionally includes a wide range of people, including individuals with African, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic backgrounds.
Valerie Harvey, MD, MPH, is the president of the Skin of Color Society. Here, she shares her thoughts and insights on common skin conditions in darker-skinned populations and how to treat those conditions.
What are the most common skin conditions that affect people of color?
Studies have shown that there are numerous skin conditions that are more common or present uniquely in individuals with skin of color. They include hair disorders such as traction alopecia and central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia, and pigmentary disorders (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma). The incidence of keloids varies by race and ethnicity and has been shown to be higher in Hispanic and Black people and lowest in non-Hispanic white people.
Can you describe post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation?
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is discoloration that is left on the skin after an underlying skin rash or bump that has healed. Common conditions such as eczema, acne, and psoriasis can all result in PIH.
While PIH can happen in all skin tones, it is particularly problematic and more apparent in individuals with darker skin. The distribution of the dark spots follows that of the underlying skin condition. The shades of the hyperpigmentation can vary from light brown to dark brown to blue and gray.
What are the best treatments for PIH?
PIH is difficult to treat. Current treatment options include topical preparations, [Editor’s note: “Topical” means that these treatments go on the skin.] which are available in over-the-counter or prescription strength, chemical peels, and laser treatments.
What causes PIH?
While there is no known cause for PIH or why certain people are more prone to its development, one can take measures to avoid prolonging the condition. Avoiding the sun is one measure, as it can aggravate symptoms and prolong the healing process.
What can be done to prevent PIH?
Treatment of the underlying condition, sunscreen, and sun protection are important preventive measures. Studies show that sunlight can worsen certain forms of hyperpigmentation. Therefore, wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen is a very important part of treatment. Sunscreen should be “broad spectrum” and have a sun protective factor (SPF) of at least 30. [Editor’s note: Sun protection also includes protective clothing, hats, staying in the shade, and staying inside during peak sun exposure hours.]
Can you describe the skin condition that disproportionately causes hair loss in people of color? What hair/scalp conditions are people of color more prone to experience?
Central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA) is the most common form of scarring alopecia that occurs in Black women. It is estimated to occur in as many as 16% of African American women.
Affected individuals can experience scalp tenderness, itching, and pain. It involves the crown/vertex of the scalp and progresses centrifugally over time. The condition culminates in scarring and permanent hair loss, which is very distressing for women who suffer from this condition.
Treatment options include topical and intralesional corticosteroids, oral antibiotics, [medications that work on the immune system], and camouflage techniques.
Are there any preventative measures women can take to avoid CCCA?
Unfortunately, there are no definitive recommendations on how to prevent the occurrence of CCCA, as its etiology [cause] is unknown.
What about traction alopecia?
In addition to CCCA, traction alopecia is another type of hair loss experienced by women of color. Traction alopecia is characterized by hair loss along the frontal hairline. It is caused by repeated trauma caused by various hair care practices that occur over a period of time. If not treated in a timely manner, or if hair care practices are not modified, permanent hair loss and scarring ensues. Treatment includes the use of protective hairstyles, [medications], and surgical hair restoration.
Can you share the most common misconceptions about skin conditions that may affect people of color?
One common misconception is that individuals with skin of color are immune to developing skin cancer. While the risk of skin cancer is low among racial and ethnic minority groups, they are more likely than their white counterparts to develop skin cancers at more advanced stages.
What should all people of color know when it comes to treating and caring for their skin?
Educational awareness regarding the importance of skin health is critical. It is important to seek the timely care of a board-certified dermatologist when routine at-home measures fail to resolve symptoms. The timely receipt of care is crucial, since delays in diagnosis can result in increased morbidity [worsened disease] and in the case of melanoma, increased mortality [higher death rate].
What can be done to combat health disparities in dermatology?
One of the most important issues that will need to be rectified in order to reduce disparities in dermatology is related to workforce diversity. Unfortunately, Hispanic and Black dermatologists comprise a disproportionately low proportion of the dermatology workforce and also are poorly represented in academia. Workforce diversity is vital for innovation, expansion of public trust, and increased access to dermatologic care.