Students of color struggle to find their shade in complexion products

Liko Abrigo, first-year undeclared major, puts makeup on at her desk. Abrigo struggles to find products for her skin tone but she has discovered brands that cater to her (Photo by Queeny Zhang)

For many women, putting makeup on is the foundation to the start of a good day.  

However, this is not a shared universal experience because many women of color struggle to find makeup products that match their skin tone.

Although the makeup industry has evolved and extended their collection of shade ranges in recent years, white racial demographics still dominate, making it difficult for students of color at Pepperdine to find complexion products. 

For instance, Liko Abrigo, a first-year undeclared student who is African American, has to search and scour for her shade when shopping at the Sephora in Country Mart.

“I definitely feel discouraged,” Abrigo said. “It’s not a good feeling going to a place knowing nothing matches you and makes you feel confident.”

Colorism in makeup 

The cosmetic industry did not cater to people of color for decades. The industry was resistant to inclusivity and diversity due to a history of systematic racism and colorism, Public Relations Professor Jamila Cupid said. 

“Colorism or skin tone bias is a form of discrimination based on skin tone that typically awards advantages to light-skinned people while penalizing dark-skinned people within an ethnic group,” Chelsea Gardner wrote in June 2021 Inquiries Journal article. 

Skin tone hierarchy has become prevalent in society dictating how people of color (POC) are treated in society, Gardner wrote. 

The purpose of a skin tone hierarchy was to keep African American slaves in a consistent cycle of slavery. 

“The color hierarchy functions in a similar manner today, where skin tone is singled out as a difference among Black people that has often resulted in advantages for lighter people and disadvantages for darker people,” Gardner wrote.

Cupid said the cosmetics industry often treats people of color as an afterthought. 

“Brands oftentimes start their collection numbering from one through 10,” Cupid said. “One being the fairest to 10 being darkest and placing the higher number at the end of the section.”

This forces people of color to look for products at the back of the aisle, hidden from most shoppers. 

Abrigo said she has to put in more effort than other shoppers to find the section that is meant for her deep skin tone. 

“I really have to search for it if I want to find something for my skin tone,” Abrigo said. “There usually is a plethora of shades that are so much lighter but they have such a few selections of darker shades.”

Fenty Beauty, a makeup brand Rihanna founded in 2017 influenced the industry to pivot to be more inclusive and diverse. 

The makeup industry now offers a minimum of 40 skin tone shades in their collection as Fenty set a new standard in the industry, Ellen Thomas quoted Linda Wells in May 2018 Women’s Wear Daily in an article. 

“‘We’re in a post-Fenty world now, where talking about inclusivity is a commitment — it’s not just acceptable, it’s desired,” Jefferies analyst Stephanie Wissink told Thomas.

Lack of undertone and pigment intensity 

Apart from having a lack of shades, makeup brands lack options to match the undertones that many people of color have. Oftentimes, makeup products lack pigment intensity in the formula.

“Someone who has a fair or deeper complexion can have yellow, pink, red or blue hue undertones,” Cupid said.

Depending on the color hue of an individual’s undertone, their skin tone will fall under three categories: cool, neutral or warm. For instance, if one has a blue hue in their skin, they have cool undertones, meanwhile if one has a pink hue, they are a neutral undertone. 

However, brands do not provide the different undertone options that people of color have in their skin. 

“I will find foundations that is supposed to be dark enough for me but then the undertone is red and orange and it looks orange on me,” Cupid said. 

In comparison to white consumers, people of color often need to purchase multiple shades from one collection in order to find their best shade match. 

“Most will purchase one product whereas I have to purchase three to find a balance that works for me,” Cupid said. “It’s frustrating because I just want to find something and have fun.”

Madelyn Massie, a sophomore integrated marketing communication major who is Indonesian, said she often encounters issues with her shade being out of stock or the undertone not matching her, which limits her purchasing options. 

“As an Asian I would rely more on Asian makeup brand and companies because they cater to us a lot better,” Massie said.

Junior IMC major Ellie Garcia said she has no issues finding her shade among makeup brands due to her fair skin tone, but she struggles with finding products for her yellow undertone as a person of Hispanic descendent. 

“I have to use higher-end makeup because the drug store doesn’t carry my shade of concealer,” Garcia said. 

In addition, most makeup brands will release their complexion line, then follow-up with additional shades. Daniella Cazares, a first-year international business major, has to visit multiple makeup stores to find a product that works for her because most brands do not carry olive undertone shades that best match her complexion.

“I feel unseen, it hurts a little bit,” Cazares said. “I see all these options they have and I don’t see mine. I’m kind of like, ‘Are you kidding?’”

While brands are making an effort to address their lack of shade ranges, they often overlook other complexion products that need more diversity. For example, blush, contour and powder lack pigment intensity and color diversity. 

Color and pigment does not translate the same on different skin tones because of color theory. A color and formula that complements lighter skin tones will not look the same on deeper complexions. 

For instance, an orange blush on a fair to light skin tone will look muddy, however, it will offer a natural flush to the cheeks on deeper skin tones because of the hue of their undertone. 

Brands curate products that best complement lighter skin tones, and do not always consider how their products will translate to deeper skin tones, Cupid said.

People of color are often an afterthought because the industry believes they are not an audience worth investing time and resources into researching better products, Molly Fleming wrote in a May 2019 Marketing Week article. 

“Brands can’t just change pigmentation to cater to darker skin tones, the formulation needs to be tweaked,” Fleming wrote. “For example, as shades get deeper Lush had to remove titanium dioxide in order to prevent ashiness.”

Students of color recommended that others who struggle to find complexion products try Fenty Beauty.

“Fenty is good,” Cazares said. “I know sometimes it can get a little more expensive but they have a variety of skin tone products.” 

Cupid also recommended Fenty Beauty alongside MAC Cosmetics and Huda Beauty.

“Fenty does a great job with range,” Cupid said. “MAC is always great for color and Huda has a great range for contour.”

How brands can do better

It is important for makeup brands to cater to their target audience, Cupid said, especially people of color, to improve their public image and generate sales.

“They have wants, interests and needs,” Cupid said. “If you get them, they become your loyal customers and in turn will bring others to support the brand.”

Makeup brands can start off by allocating more time and resources toward researching how to develop complexion products that work with people of color’s skin rather than the consumer themselves putting in extra effort to make the product work. 

Cupid believes once brands have figured out what works best, they should share it with the public and makeup artists. 

By doing so, brands can build a closer relationship with their clients and attract new audiences, Cupid said. 

Queeny Zhang completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.