Over the last few years I’ve seen a new black pride movement that has really put a smile on my face. We’ve united on social media to embrace hashtags like #melanin—celebrating the beauty of our skin. Black women of all ages are ditching relaxers, wigs and weaves to rock their natural hair. However, as a black man who sees his barber religiously and isn’t interested rocking longer, natural looks like Odell and the Weeknd, I feel a little left out. There are countless articles, blog posts and YouTube videos about ways to rock and upkeep natural hair, but not as much focus on an area that would be beneficial to me—ways to maintain and improve our skin. The saying “black don’t crack” might hold some truth, but I know first hand that black skin isn’t immune to reacting to changes in our environment and bacteria we encounter on a daily basis.
Since I hit puberty at 11 years old—which I blame on all of that genetically modified fast food growing up—I’ve struggled with problem skin. I remember being teased in middle school for having zits. The first person to offer me a solution was my grandmother. She grew up in the South in the 1950s, and used Noxema as fix-all for skin issues. I’m not sure if the formula's changed in 50 years, but between the awful smell and how dry and irritated it made my face, things only got worse. My mom tried to help by buying everything she could find in a local Target, but nothing seemed to work.
As I got older my breakouts became less frequent, but the flare ups and imperfections in my skin continued to plague my adult life. I found myself not speaking up in classes in college out of fear of being noticed—and avoiding opportunities to present my hard work in the first few years of my career. When it came to dating and meeting new people, I spent more time wondering if new connections were looking into my eyes, to get know me, or to bypass looking at my skin.
When I turned 25, although I wasn’t having full-on breakouts like I did as a teen, looking in the mirror meant constantly seeing areas that could use improvement. From oversized pores to dark spots from pimples, it always seemed to be something. Women can often get away with blemishes by covering them up with makeup, but for a guy, hiding imperfections—uneven tones and razor bumps—is much harder, if not impossible, to do.
When the cleansers I relied on from my teen years, like Neutrogena and Cetaphil, began to fail me, I decided to make an appointment with a local black dermatologist. Fortunately, living in Detroit, I have more options than I did when I lived in the Bay Area—although I was aggravated by the longer wait times for my new black doctor. Spending hours in the waiting room watching episodes of Good Times, despite having an appointment, was a sacrifice I was willing to make to see an expert in black skin.
When I finally met my doctor, I can honestly say the experience was worth the wait. Not only was she was polite and attentive, she actually took the time to examine my face under a lamp to determine my skin type. Contrary to what I'd read on WebMD, oily skin wasn’t the cause of my breakouts. I have combination skin, with an oily T-zone, and dryness everywhere else. She informed me that the dryness was causing breakouts, because my skin would overproduce oil that was trapped in different layer of my face.
She pulled out a pad, wrote about five prescriptions down and had her assistant pack me a bag of over-the-counter face wash and moisturizer samples that I already knew just didn’t work on my face anymore. A couple of months later, tired of copays for prescriptions that worked wonders until I stopped using them, I decided to take my face into my own hands and walk into a Sephora.
I'd read a column in GQ about a men’s skincare line called Anthony, which was supposedly available in Sephora. Curious to try it, I was initially deterred from dropping into Sephora because the store brands itself as a “beauty” specialist—and from what I'd little I glimpsed of the store, I'd assumed that it carried makeup and hair products for women, and specifically, wealthy white women.
And when I first set foot in the store, I couldn’t help but feel like I stood out like a sore thumb. In every aisle, I was greeted by women who looked nothing like me, with faces enhanced by expensive makeup, and perfumed aromas—which brought flashbacks of dodging aggressive department store saleswomen who spent their days pushing samples at people. It felt just as awkward as walking into a drugstore to buy condoms, only to discover that they're locked behind glass.
Feeling the pressure to get out of the store quickly, I randomly grabbed one each of the best selling cleansers and moisturizers, skipped over to the register, didn’t bother signing up for rewards, and—after seeing the grand total—expected to wake up looking like Columbus Short the next morning. As one can imagine, it didn’t work. Fortunately the store's return policy is pretty awesome, so I decided to go back and figure out what would actually work on my face.
On my way back in for an exchange, an aesthetician spotted me looking dumbfounded at the store’s wide selection of products and quickly assessed my skin’s problem areas in seconds. She even saw areas of improvement, like brightening and oil control, that I never noticed. Before I knew it, she had me sampling a skin care regimen that would have Korean women asking where I got my facials. I walked out of there with a face cleansing brush to help me exfoliate, a cleanser free of parabens (linked to cancer and aging) and sulfates (which damage the environment), a overnight resurfacing gel packed with essential vitamins for the skin, a moisturizer for my combination skin, and peels used by celebrities like Will Smith and Kim Kardashian.
After a week of using the samples, my skin had transformed. My dark spots were all but gone, my pores were hardly visible and my dark skin had a glow like an African King's. I was getting compliments on my skin from total strangers, and for the first time in years, I got carded when I went to a bar. My family and friends even noticed, and started asking me what they could do to improve their skin.
Between the doctor and the store, I finally had a handle on what my issues were. I even had a customized regimen. Half a year later, I feel more confident about who I am as a person—and find myself reading product reviews like they're best-selling novels.
So fellas, before you knock trying a new wash, moisturizer, resurfacer or peel, remember: Your face is the first thing that someone sees—why not take care of it? I can’t endorse any specific brand, because different things work for different skin types, but I learned a lot, and here are some things to keep in mind:
Get to know your skin type: It sounds easy enough, but looks can be deceiving. If your skin is dry or oily it’s typically easy to spot, but combination skin is tricky.
Don’t be afraid to experiment: Everything won’t work for you the first time, but don’t give up. Different lines of skincare have their own unique compositions and what works for you might not work for the next guy or vice versa.
Don’t judge a product by its cover: It’s tempting to walk to the “men’s” section of the store on your first trip, but don’t let your testosterone screw you over. There are plenty of products that are technically marketed to women that can deliver equal, if not better, results.
What you do in your daily life matters: As a black man, I fell victim to the belief that my complexion protected me from the sun and didn’t burn. But despite the extra melanin, the sun can damage black skin, especially on the face, and cause discoloration. African-American people can, and do, get skin cancer. Also little things, like drinking alcohol less frequently, and changing your pillow cases regularly, make a world of difference.
Think about the long term: As the days go by, none of us are getting any younger! The skin around your eyes and mouth show aging signs the fastest. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a eye cream or a vitamin-packed serum to preserve yourself.
Hailing from Detroit, Michael is a seasoned communications professional who loves all things social. He graduated from Howard University with a degree in journalism and is passionate about education, health & wellness and economics.