Ask any Black woman about her experience shopping for foundation, and there is a common narrative. The shades were too ashy, too warm, too cool, or even worse, nonexistent. Until recently, the foundation landscape was a labyrinth to navigate, and finding a true match felt nearly impossible. Then came the explosive launch of Fenty Beauty by Rihanna in 2017. With its extensive 40-shade range, diverse marketing campaign, and inclusive mantra, “Beauty for All,” women who’d long been marginalized for not fitting Eurocentric beauty standards were finally recognized and celebrated in their essence. The result? A cultural shift that was palpable. Dubbed “The Fenty Effect,” makeup brands quickly followed suit, scrambling to expand their shade range in an effort to reach a variety of skin tones — and absolve themselves from the perpetual whitewashing of the beauty industry. However, even with this newfound appreciation and celebration of a wide range of tones, specifically darker ones, creating foundations for Black skin is more complex than what lies on the surface.
At its core, a foundation begins with inspiration and a prototype. A brand identifies the type of formula it wants to create and its particular attributes — finish (matte, satin, dewy), coverage level, wear time, skin-care benefits (hydrating, calming) — and partners with a chemist to develop it. “Foundation usually starts with some version of a base, which is typically an emulsion,” explains Geraldine Molina, lead cosmetic chemist at Glossier. “There’s a couple of different types. Most commonly, we see water and oil emulsions.” Raw materials make up the base and then active skin-care ingredients, which are typically sourced from international suppliers, are added to the formula. The colorants are made from a combination of pigments — titanium dioxide, which is white, plus red, yellow, and black iron oxides. “On occasion, you’ll see a little hint of the blue iron oxide, but that’s it,” Molina says. “Reds and yellows (iron oxides) always tend to skew warm. So it’s the combination of your black and white to help lift and bring to cool. There are a couple of different new types of pigment technologies out there that allow for flexibility in tone, but it’s all based on old fashion color theory,” Molina continues.
While color theory may sound elementary, there is still a dearth of knowledge about Black skin, specifically understanding the myriad of shades and nuances of undertones, which poses a challenge to brands in the formulation process. Tamerri Ater, senior product development director at Versed Skincare, explains, “A big part of developing the shades for people of color is knowing the shade range of people’s skin tones. That alone is a huge challenge and is where consulting color experts comes into play.” Professional makeup artist Jaleesa Jaikaran, who’s worked with NARS and MAC, adds, “A lot of brands, when they make darker shades, a majority of undertones are very red — and darker doesn’t always mean red. You can be neutral, you can be more olive, and oftentimes the olive undertones are missed. Those slight nuances can be a bit difficult, but we see the brands that do succeed in the shade-range space, like NARS, Fenty, Maybelline … they clearly are taking their time and not just mixing things until they’re dark. It really is science and color theory to get undertones in a correct way that matches dark people. Dark skin is not just one or two shades, it’s several shades.”
Fillers, a common ingredient used to help set the foundation and minimize migration or settling into lines, must also be examined carefully, as they can contribute to ashiness. (Definitely not cute.) “Traditional fillers like a talc or mica all tend to be pretty opaque, especially in the deeper skin tones, which would give some version of a grayish look. While something like a non-nano silica — also a great functional filler — allows for a more modern, translucent, radiant finish,” Molina says. Additionally, being mindful of active ingredients and how they may react with darker skin is a critical component to formulation. “We stay away from things that could possibly elicit a reaction from sun exposure, for example. We also ensure that if we have any heavy-hitting skin-care actives, I personally review all of the data from the raw-material houses and ensure that those studies from those raw materials also occurred on an inclusive panel,” Molina adds.
Once the base formula is solidified, the next and arguably most important step is the color-matching phase. This process is extensive and usually twofold: First, the foundation is tested through an internal panel of formulating partners and in-house staff (it helps if the team is diverse), and secondly with a pool of outside candidates. “At Glossier, we ensure that the lab is testing it on a couple of different skin tones every time they create a submission. We want to see how that formula stretches across the entire shade range from the darkest to lightest because the idea is that they all should feel and perform identically to one another,” Molina says. Crowdsourcing and leveraging the online beauty community has become a new way for brands to test products, get feedback, and allow consumers to feel involved in the formulation process. Ater explains, “At Versed, we test every formula with real people from our community and have a database categorized by skin tone and type to ensure diversity.” Participants A/B test the foundations in different environments — indoor versus outdoor, natural versus artificial light, pictures versus videos — and compare all for consistency. “Pictures are a huge part of our panel,” Molina says. “We go through a lot of images from different angles. We ask people, especially now that we’re in COVID, to do a lot of at-home testing and always rely on natural light, so if the sun’s gone down, we’re like, ‘Guys, hold on, we can’t continue the shade matching.’ But it’s always about getting people in real light, in action too, like in motion.” After testing is finalized and shades are confirmed, it can take anywhere from 12–18 months before the foundation actually hits retail shelves.
From a financial perspective, developing multiple foundation shades can be a costly endeavor for smaller brands, and these limited resources result in fewer tests (clinicals can be expensive), fewer shades, and subpar formulas. On the flip side for brands with adequate funding, rushing to launch multiple shades without putting in the legwork is another sure way to backfire. The solve? Doing proper market research to understand the true needs of Black skin, surveying consumers, consulting experts, and, most importantly, being thoughtful with positioning and marketing messages. We see this with Ami Colé, a new Black-owned beauty brand designed specifically for melanin-rich skin. The company took a thoughtful approach to color, launching with a curated line of skin-enhancing tints in six flexible shades to complement the various undertones of darker skin and amplify its natural glow.
As research continues on formulating shades of darker skin, we hope to see more true matches for all women wherever they may fall on the color spectrum, because at the end of the day, everyone deserves to look and feel their best. Period.