Dija Ayodele on her new book Black Skin: ‘Beauty must break free of the default “white” setting’

·7-min read
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We have Rihanna to thank — for so many things but mostly for the major shift towards inclusivity in the beauty industry. The singer launched her Fenty make-up brand in 2017 with a world-first 40 shades (there are now 50). And how lucrative it was: Fenty is worth $2.8 billion and has made RiRi a billionaire. What she started, mainstream brands followed and most no longer carry just one shade for darkskinned black women (usually called “chocolate”), and high street beauty stores have (finally) got the memo that Afro haircare products exist.

Largely still missing from this conversation, though, is skincare. The nuances of darker skin have yet to be meaningfully addressed, but award-winning skincare expert Dija Ayodele is aiming to change this with her debut book Black Skin: The Definitive Skincare Guide (released this month). Covering everything from practical tips for darker skin to the historical and cultural tale of how black skin is still overlooked, Ayodele’s book is an invaluable resource for skincare professionals and amateurs alike.

Founder of The Black Skin Directory as well as her own London clinic West Room Aesthetics, and with 13 years of experience as an aesthetician under her belt, Ayodele, 38, is one of the most respected professionals in the industry. Born in Sierra Leone before moving to Tottenham aged 13, beauty has always been a part of Ayodele’s life but she says she didn’t always see herself reflected in the industry.

Make-up has always been ahead in terms of diversity. Black women haven’t been part of the skincare space

“I’ve always kind of been in the beauty industry,” she says. “My mum worked in hospitality so always had to be well groomed. She was always reading Hello! magazine so I would pick it up after she’d finished and flick through, getting tips for my imaginary salon. Growing up there was definitely a lack of representation in the beauty and skincare industry. Make-up was ahead of skincare in terms of diversity: black women were simply not part of the narrative in the skincare space.”

After becoming frustrated with her job in HR, she decided to pursue a career in beauty, renting a room in a salon in Kensington before developing enough of a clientele to set up her own clinic. She opened West Room Aesthetics in Queen’s Park, in January 2020, six weeks before the first lockdown. She was homeschooling her children — an eight-year-old and a three-year-old — at the time. “It was terrible, I’m not going to lie. But I’m a glass half full kind of person. I gave myself two days to wallow in pity then picked myself back up and thought ‘Right, what positives can I gain from this experience?’ And there were some — lockdown forced us to realise what the bare necessities of keeping the business alive were. We completely changed our service to offer online education to help people look after their skin at home. I wouldn’t want to go through it again but it was certainly a learning experience.”

Ayodele says the main problem with the skincare industry is its default “white” setting. “It’s not that black skin needs specialist treatment, it’s that practitioners need to have the nuance and knowledge to be able to apply the same treatments to different skin types. That’s our superpower: we can do that differentiation. Our black clients will often say that it’s the first time they have experienced luxury skincare.” She adds, “But we are not a ‘black skin clinic’: there’s no need for this. All clinics just need to make their space suitable for black women.”

Four black skin myths, busted

1. “Black don’t crack.” We love to say this, but black will crack if you slack. Black skin is not immune from “cracking”, i.e. fine lines and wrinkles; it just happens at a slower rate than white skin.

2. “Black people can’t get skin cancer.” Black people can get skin cancer, including the type caused by the sun. Albeit at a lower rate than white people, but that is not a hall pass to be less vigilant about sun protection.

3. “Hydroquinone is bad for black skin because it bleaches and lightens the skin.” Hydroquinone is only bad for the skin when used incorrectly and without medical supervision.

4. “Shea butter is the best moisturiser for black skin.” False. Shea butter, and any butters or oils in their pure form, can clog your pores and will form a seal over skin, stopping it from getting rid of natural waste, sweat and toxins.

This lack of visibility, she says, is the reason that black women often rely heavily on make-up rather than skincare products to address skin concerns . Seeing the anxiety faced by black women who struggle to access skincare treatments inspired Ayodele to create the award-winning Black Skin Directory, an online resource of skincare professionals with expertise in darker skin tones.

Her book is in part an exploration of the roots of this oversight, spanning continents and centuries up to the present day. “It’s a historical journey through the skincare industry and how it relates to black people. It covers slavery, Jim Crow, the 1968 Race Relations Act in the UK to colourism in the 21st century. The beauty industry has continuously failed to live up to expectations for everyone.

Ayodele also discusses race within dermatology from a medical lens, specifically the fact that the majority of doctors are only taught how to diagnose skin conditions on white patients. This is an issue so damaging that London-based medical student Malone Mukwende felt compelled to write Mind the Gap, a handbook of images and descriptions of clinical signs and symptoms in black and brown skin.

One misconception about black skin is that it is tough and therefore you have to be more aggressive with it

Black Skin also serves as a practical skincare tool for all ages and skin tones. Lots of skincare issues, such as acne, hyperpigmentation and eczema, manifest themselves very differently on darker skin tones, and most skincare products are not formulated with black skin in mind. There are whole chapters dedicated to men, children and teenagers, along with many misconceptions about black skin that Ayodele addresses.

“One of the biggest myths about dark skin is that it is tough and resilient, and therefore you need to be more aggressive with it. In fact, the fact that it has more melanin in it means that it can be more sensitive, since melanin can reproduce more quickly if there is an issue,” she says. “There is also the classic misconception that black people don’t need to wear sunscreen. Spoiler alert: we all need sunscreen and it’s one of the easiest ways to prevent premature ageing and skin cancer.”

Reflecting on diversity within the beauty industry today, Ayodele feels it is something of a double-edged sword. “The entire ecosystem is definitely more clued up to the needs of people of colour nowadays. I would love to get to a point where diversity and inclusion become a natural part of every organisation, rather than being overt pillars. It sometimes feels like turning up at a restaurant and there’s no seat for you, and everyone makes a song and dance of saying ‘look we’re adding an extra seat at the table and moving up for you! ’ which can be uncomfortable.”

Ayodele is keen to stress though that her book is not exclusively for black people. “I don’t want anyone to think, ‘Oh I’m not black, therefore this isn’t for me’”. Black Skin is a celebratory book rich in educational content for everyone, and a must-have for anyone looking to up their skincare game.

Black Skin: The Definitive Skincare Guide is available now.

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