Clinical testing techniques haven’t kept up with skin color inclusion, says expert

By Ravyn Cullor

- Last updated on GMT

As people age, those with different skin tones experience different aging symptoms, which is generally not taken into account in inclusive clinical testing. © Getty Images -  PeopleImages
As people age, those with different skin tones experience different aging symptoms, which is generally not taken into account in inclusive clinical testing. © Getty Images - PeopleImages

Related tags inclusivity clinical data testing anti-aging Skin care

Skin care brands are increasingly interested in including all skin colors in their clinical testing, but testing methods don’t yet account for differences in aging symptoms.

While skin care issues for those in their 20s and 30s are very similar across skin tones, largely acne and hydration, Ameann DeJohn, CEO and founder of Media Lab Science​, said symptoms of aging vary greatly across skin tones, which presents a problem in clinical testing.

Skin tones can be categorized in the Fitzpatrick scale, with one being the lightest skin and six being the darkest. According to research by the National Institutes of Health​, those with lighter skin tones experience more wrinkling with age, while those with darker skin experience more depigmentation. 

The problem in clinical testing comes when brands want to test products designed to treat aging symptoms in light skin tones on all Fitzpatrick types. 

Theoretically, testing an anti-wrinkle cream that is effective on Fitzpatrick one through three on all skin tones would make it appear to perform more poorly in a clinical testing report because the darker skin toned participants had few wrinkles to treat.

“Somebody in their 40s does not have the same amount of wrinkles if they’re a Fitzpatrick six as a Fitzpatrick one,”​ DeJohn said. “That means brands have to rethink the way that they talk about inclusivity, and then eventually in clinical testing, we have to rethink how we’re testing.”

Despite the fact that cosmetics scientists are aware of the difference in needed treatments among skin tones, DeJohn said marketing professionals who generally request clinical testing are more focused on the inclusion aspect.

As a solution, for the time being, Media Lab Science produces videos and photography for marketing purposes alongside clinical data. DeJohn said the multimedia aspect can help compensate for the numerical drop in efficacy because consumers will be able to see how the product works for people like themselves.

She also said Media Lab Science tries to be inclusive not only in skin tone but also in gender identity, including men and non-binary individuals.

“Brands have always traditionally produced numbers, but consumers are attracted to visuals,”​ DeJohn said.

However, in the long term, DeJohn said solutions need to be engineered in testing. She does not believe there is an appropriate testing method now, but panel-focused testing is promising, in which products are tested and results are given separately for light and dark-skinned participants.

From the brand inclusivity side, she said it’s important that cosmetics are developed to treat the anti-aging symptoms of darker skin toned consumers, as opposed to testing anti-aging products formulated for light skin toned consumers on all consumers and advertising them as broadly efficacious.

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