Pharrell Williams appears to have skin carved out of marble, the work of Michelangelo
himself. He is blemishless, smooth, and poreless. And for a long time, the unofficial face of the Fountain of Youth was shockingly skincare routine-less. “Skincare was not really a priority” for much of his life, he told ELLE.com. It helps to have good friends, though. Luckily, Pharrell knows the right people: “Before I ever started to think about skincare, I vividly remember Naomi Campbell telling me years ago that I needed to step it up and start thinking about taking care of my skin,” he said.
Campbell’s advice set Pharrell down a 20-year-path that has defined his most recent projects. It started with a routine and a meeting with his longtime dermatologist Dr. Elena Jones. “Once Dr. Jones taught me the importance of having a routine and telling me that it doesn’t really need to be difficult, I was adamant on sticking to a routine and being diligent about it,” he explained. Now, Jones serves as the chief dermatologist of Williams’ skincare brand Humanrace. And although Pharrell’s story is unique because of both his fame and famously youthful visage, it mirrors the path of many Black men now involved in the beauty industry. While they were long neglected by the business, they’re now the ones delivering its reckoning.
Ask any man about his skincare routine, and you’ll likely get answers ranging from secretly squeezing out their girlfriend’s/mom’s/sister’s beauty products to routinely lathering up in all-encompassing formulas that claim to wash their face, hair, and body. His usage of a single formula for everything isn’t completely his fault; the beauty business has a history of stigmatizing beauty practices by propagating the idea that cleansing, toning, and moisturizing is exclusive to women, leaving men the underserved ones in the field. Shaun McKinley, a New York-based PR executive who helps represent men’s beauty brands, sees a huge dearth of products in this category, especially ones that actually address skin concerns. Instead, they underestimate men’s desires while underserving their needs. “These brands are trying to push three-in-one products when one product shouldn’t work for your face, hair ,and body. Those are different parts of your body that need to be properly taken care of.”
Occupying the shelves in most beauty stores are bright-colored packaging with products that tout “brightening” or “anti-aging” or “radiance” properties. Head down the same aisle and you’ll encounter the men’s section: a barrage of dark-hued bottles, in either navy, forest green, or black promising a deep cleanse or spotless after-shave. But what about eliminating those irritating, itching razor bumps? Or minimizing facial oil throughout the day? Though they may surface, questions regarding how to address and prevent these issues are hardly ever expressed aloud. Why? We can point to a lack of knowledge and representation in mainstream media—many men just don’t know where to begin.
This is especially true of Black men who feel both underserved by the business and the communities they were raised in. “Back then, it wasn’t really something instilled or taught to men—that you needed to cleanse, exfoliate, and moisturize your skin,” Pharrell says.
Dorion Renaud learned about self-care earlier than most. His dad owned a barbershop so he grew up around guys concerned with their looks: the right fade, a hot towel to their face, moisturizers to ward away ashiness. But it wasn’t until his teens that he began to understand that beauty for men extended beyond a clean, wavy fade.
“You know, in our community, of course, being ashy is not acceptable. Growing up, the men did anything to prevent themselves from getting talked about, so we had to have a hairbrush, the pomade for our hair, and then a moisturizer,” he adds.
As an aspiring teenage model, Renaud came to a crossroads when pimples emerged on his money-maker. He makes a confession that would make any dermatologist clutch their pearls: “I got microdermabrasion done in the back of a nail salon,” he chuckles. Before derms and estheticians became more accessible, the women and men of salons and barbershops were the experts many Black people looked to for skin advice. “We are our own healers. We are our own doctors, and we had to be,” Renaud said.
He asked his parents to take him to a dermatologist. “They were so expensive,” Renaud lamented. “There were very limited resources for us to be able to see people help with our skin”—especially melanated skin. But when he moved to Harlem at 19, he made a life-changing revelation: African shea butter. “I started applying it all over, not to help with breakouts but to feel and look good,” Renaud says.
This discovery is what led him to launch Buttah Skin in 2018. With nourishing shea as the central ingredient, the former model aimed to shift people’s perceptions about men and skincare, particularly those of color, and to inspire more individuals to adopt self-care and skincare habits. “I needed to do something about this and provide education because this is a place that is not only about vanity. It’s about true education on how to take care of your skin. I named it Buttah because what better compliment is there than when someone tells you your skin looks as smooth as butter? That’s what we say in the south,” the Buttah Skin founder said.
Having skin as silky smooth as butter has the ability to stop people in their tracks (or Instagram scroll). It’s how many people found Sean Garette, the self-professed “skin doll” who has built a massive following on Instagram and Twitter (nearing 200,000 followers between both platforms) for his unfiltered tips, crisp close-up beauty shots, and soothing voiceovers reviewing the latest and greatest beauty products. Before the “doll” added Fenty Skin ambassador and Dior skin expert to his resume, he grew up perusing the vanities of his grandmother and mother.
“Growing up, I never really thought of beauty as a gender thing. I believe that’s why I’m the way I am in my career now. Because even when you do talk about men’s and women’s skin, there are some things that differentiate the two, but skin is skin. A good cleanser is going to work for men or woman, or however you identify,” he says.
Where many young men glossed over facial cleansers and moisturizers, Garette was creating a full skincare routine using Mary Kay products from his grandmother, a Mary Kay ambassador. His grandmother taught him how to luxuriate in his beauty practices.
“My grandmother was the one who taught me the first art of self-care. In a Black household, that was a sign of luxury for people; being able to get your hair done and get your hair cut every week and being able to wear the lipstick that you love and keep your nails freshly done was really a sign of accomplishment. And so my grandmother always put it in me that you’re presenting yourself to the world, you need to look a certain way,” he says.
This is a common value instilled in Black kids from their matriarchs, the trusted skin experts before anyone knew what a dermatologist or esthetician was, or even had the money to afford to visit one.
Alabama-based dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman could remember his aunt telling him plainly: “Black people don’t go to the dermatologist.” So he became one. The New Orleans native knew he wanted to pursue dermatology since the age of 13, following in the footsteps of a neighbor who was the only Black derm he knew. During his youth, Dr. Hartman was always reminded that Black people didn’t visit a derm’s office, “unless they were going for serious skin conditions like cysts, psoriasis, keloids, or hair loss. But acne deserved just as much attention,” Dr. Hartman, founder of Alabama’s Skin Wellness Dermatology and Bio Oil partner, said over Zoom. But dermatology has always had a problem with skin of color with so many licensed professionals who are not trained in treating deeper skin tones, leaving Black people to seek help elsewhere. Dermatology was always considered a luxury, priced at numbers many Black people couldn’t afford. A lack of understanding of Black skin, coupled with the inaccessibility of exclusivity, only further created a barrier between the Black community and dermatology.
“It was really limited, as far as Black derms, and the realm of impossibilities that existed for people with brown skin and the world of dermatology. I was intrigued; The fact that the skin is an organ that everybody could see, and it was very emotionally tied to identity because you can’t really hide it very easily,” he explained.
With identity at stake, it’s not surprising how many men have been conditioned to ignore their skin issues out of a sense of masculinity or maintaining a strong exterior. Black men have long perceived beauty as feminine.
“It can be daunting for men to feel like they can be interested in or educated in skin health because of stigmas around men and self-care,” Williams says. It’s easy to assert the presumption that toxic masculinity is to blame for the dearth of interest in skincare for Black men—this notion isn’t entirely wrong. But take a look at beauty ads and marketing and seldom will you find those targeting men of color. “Society, media, and advertising have marketed masculinity with such narrow parameters, often vilifying anything outside of those parameters to corral men to think there is only one “textbook” definition of masculinity and anything to do with the skin, face, and beauty for human skin,” he says, which is one pain point he wanted to address with Humanrace, launched in 2020.
“Society pressures men that appear or act too vain. Men really aren’t supposed to be beautiful. The injectables industry just started focusing on the needs of darker skin tones. If you see it advertised, but don’t see it as something that can help you or address the needs that you have, then you’re not going to engage,” Dr. Hartman adds.
Still, there’s been an uptick in Black clients—especially Black men—entering Dr. Hartman’s office for long-term treatments of acne and hyperpigmentation. Social media and a plethora of male-led beauty brands—from Buttah Skin to Pharrell William’s Humanrace—can be credited to the spark in interest. “We want to bring the conversation back to just talking care of your skin and yourself. I love that our customers at Humanrace are evenly split between men and women because it shows more men are feeling welcome to the conversation and understand the mission of Humanrace,” Williams adds. While these brands have male founders, the products are void of any gendering, emphasizing the notion that skin is simply just skin.
“Men should feel comfortable using these products. As much as we want to say skincare is universal and men shouldn’t care if the product is pink or not, you can’t just deprogram somebody. With me being a queer person, I don’t care if a product is pink or purple. But for a man, especially a straight Black man, they might not want to use a product that is, say, pink. Why can’t things be non-gendered, just beautiful products that are marketed and shown on every skin type, every gender identity?” Garette says. “Fenty Skin has done it. It’s really is just having people like me and skincare professionals that look like me in beauty marketing and ads.”
The beauty business seems to be changing its image these days—or at least attempting to. The cries and screams of Black women for a diverse beauty business gave rise to a surge of deeper foundation hues, invisible sunscreens, and increased brand transparency. Now the faint murmur from men rumbling beneath the beauty industry’s veneers is reverberating louder these days with a message as clear as day: Black men’s skin needs some love, too.
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Nerisha is the beauty commerce editor at ELLE.com, covering all things beauty (and fashion and music). She has a penchant for sneakers and nude lip glosses, and spends way too much time re-watching 90s sitcoms.