A Dermatologist Explains the Science Behind the 'Black Don't Crack' Stereotype
How true is the cliche? I asked experts (including my mom) whether black women age better.
Image by Kaylan Mahomes
Much to wonder of Internet denizens throughout cyberspace, the three young women in the picture above are not all the same age. Indeed, this is actually a family portrait of a mother and her twin daughters, which gives new credence to the old phrase, "black don't crack."
Looking at celebrities like Pharrell Williams (42), Naomi Campbell (45), Idris Elba (43), and Will Smith (47), all of whom are aging without hard lines or wrinkles, I wanted to find out if these were just instances of incredible genes or if there was some truth to the pleasant stereotype about black folks and their skin.
All signs point to true. "It's due to the amount of collagen and melanin in the skin," says skin specialist and aesthetician Bianca Estelle. Melanin is a sticky pigment produced by your skin that works like sunscreen, protecting the skin from UV rays. A specific type of melanin called eumelanin creates a dark skin tone; the more eumelanin your body produces, the darker your skin will be. "That's what makes black skin age so well," Estelle says. "We have a natural protection. I call it the ozone layer of our skin."
White people—like, say the Swiss or Irish—have a very small production of melanin, while ethnically Asian people produce a slightly different type of melanin called pheomelanin. "In terms of the process, it would be caucasian skin that ages least well. Mixed-race skin also ages pretty well," says Estelle. "But the darker the better."
It would be caucasian skin that ages least well.
This is great news for a mixed-race gal like myself. Estelle also says that black skin ages so well because we typically have a higher oil content and the sebaceous activity in our skin—meaning we have a natural skin hydration system that makes black skin look hydrated, smoother, and plumper.
So what about collagen? The very substance that starlets and "real" housewives get injected into their lips and cheeks? Does black skin produce more of it? Not exactly, but the type of collagen black skin produces is less prone to the sun damage. "This might be one of the reasons why signs of aging, like wrinkles, are delayed in darker skin," dermatologist Dr. Noor Almaani says.
Of course, beyond the very obvious downside of black skin (e.g. systemic racism), there are a few physical downsides to dark skin. "Although black skin may deal better with the sun, it is prone to discoloration, dark spots, and pigmentation such as melasma from sun exposure and hormonal effects, as well as to keloid scarring or scarring following an ear piercing," says Dr Almaani.
I certainly relate to this problem. I have hyper-pigmentation, wherein my skin becomes darkened after acne or other trauma. I'm also prone to keloid scarring, which happens when scar tissue builds up to form an unsightly lump.
Where aging is concerned, there isn't a downside to our skin type.
There's another, more subtle, social downside to smooth black skin: Many of my black friends and relatives have commented on the fact that they are sometimes not taken seriously because of their youthful looks. My mother recalls a particularly striking incident. On the day I was born, she felt the hospital staff were a bit chilly towards her, and she believes it's because she didn't look "old enough" to be having a baby. Another time a door-to-door salesman came to my mother's door hawking tea towels. He asked her, "Is your mom in?" even though my mother was in her thirties at the time, holding an infant (me) in her arms.
"Where aging is concerned, there isn't a downside to our skin type," says Estelle. "I look at my mother, for example, and she has less wrinkles than some caucasian 30-year-olds do. I'm not exaggerating: This is a woman who has done nothing at all [to her skin] and she is in her eighties and has great skin."
Looks like I'll be keep being ID'd for some time.