We Need More Black-Owned Beauty Brands. Four Black CEOs Explain Why.

Katonya Breaux and more on making the beauty industry more inclusive.

Illustration Sharon Gong
August 22, 2017
We Need More Black-Owned Beauty Brands. Four Black CEOs Explain Why. Clockwise from top left: Laws Of Nature Cosmetics, Unsun Cosmetics, Foxie Bombs Cosmetics, Beauty Bakerie  

“Coffee,” “almond,” and “medium deep” are not the only shades of black skin, but you wouldn’t know that by browsing a drugstore beauty aisle.

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For decades, black beauty brand owners have worked towards creating products that cater to black women of all skin tones and types. Vera Moore established her own line of skincare products for black women in 1979. Iman’s namesake brand, which serves “women with skin of color,” launched in 1993.

But aside from Iman Cosmetics, can you name three black-owned beauty brands off the top of your head? If you thought of Black Opal, Black Radiance or black|Up, the gag is they’re not actually black-owned. And though they do make products designed for black skin, many black-owned beauty brands have suffered from a lack of visibility.

With such few accessible brands representing a range of darker skin tones, black people are often left with limited options to achieve desired looks. If a person of color wants to contour, they shouldn’t have to resort to using black eyeshadow because there are no darker hues available.

Nor should essential skincare products leave skin smothered in white residue. Beyond the aesthetic of makeup, black people need products that tend to their skincare needs: hyperpigmentation and protection from the sun’s damaging rays, among other things. Black consumers deserve to be acknowledged in the beauty industry. Period.

And that’s why some brands are dedicated to catering to black women’s needs. I spoke to four black CEOs who established their own melanin-friendly brands and shed light on the importance of diversifying the industry.

Best known for: Organic foundation that provides sheer to medium coverage.

Must-have product: Foxy Finish Mineral Crème Foundation (91% organic)

What inspired you to start your business?

Back in 2007, my mother was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer, which had spread to various parts of her body at that point. Her lungs, bones, almost everywhere. I was a freshman in college when we found out about her diagnosis. The next day I performed a general internet search on what causes breast cancer. As I kept reading, a lot of the articles linked [cancer with] certain chemicals and ingredients in beauty products, whether it’s makeup, hair care products, hair spray, even food. I was so shocked because I had no prior knowledge. That started my healthy beauty journey. I started giving this information to my mother. I started implementing a lot of the things I read [for] myself. I started eliminating the hair care products that had chemicals that I read about — parabens and all of these really toxic ingredients.

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With makeup, I wear foundation, but at the time I had trouble finding foundation in my skin tone; I'm a dark-skinned African-American. So I got very frustrated over a period of time, a couple of years. I experimented with recipes and making foundation myself, so I can have something natural and organic that didn't have a lot of toxic chemicals. I found [the perfect ingredients for a] foundation that I liked and I thought to myself, I wonder if other women of color also struggle with finding natural makeup products, [and] beauty products for their skin tone as well? I decided to start and put my foundation on a website. And people started purchasing. Over time, I started adding different formulas as well as other products.

What changes can the beauty industry make to diversify its products?

What I would like to see in that space is more options of beauty products that contain healthy ingredients. Organic, natural-derived ingredients that are suitable for a wide range of shades, from the deepest to the lightest skin tone. [In] the organic and natural beauty space, as far as foundation, there's not a lot of representation there still. I think it's very important to be inclusive in the natural beauty space to create more products that are suitable for all skin tones and types. It's very difficult, even now. There's not a lot of organic makeup and beauty brands that cater to women of color. The darkest shade is still rather on the light side. I'm all for inclusion.

Katonya Breaux, Unsun Cosmetics

Best known for: Moisturizing sunscreen that combats the sun’s damaging rays.

Must-have product: Tinted Mineral Sunscreen (SPF30)

What inspired you to establish your brand?

My brand truly started as a sun-protection brand. It was based on the need I had personally. I could not find a natural sunscreen that did not leave my face with this white film or this gray, somewhat purplish [tint] in my eyebrows and hairline. It was really frustrating because I did not want to use a chemical-based sunscreen. I sought out a lab and tried to create something that would work and alleviate that issue with women of color wearing sunscreen and protect dark skin. We need to be protected just as everyone else does. A lot of us still believe that we don't need it. Often you'll [briefly go outside to] get your newspaper and your skin [becomes] susceptible.

Now with the ozone layer depletion and all of the environmental issues we have, I think we're more susceptible than ever to sun damage: the premature wrinkling, the age spots, the moles, which is what I started getting, and also skin cancer. It happens to us. I had a maternal aunt who had skin cancer. She was my complexion. We have to be more aware and know what's happening. [In] the market, like in everything else, they're not catering to us, they're catering to others. It's never been important to any of the larger companies to create a product that's easy for us to wear. Hence this constant issue with the whiteness of the product. All of that is what started Unsun, just needing something for myself.

What changes can the beauty industry make to diversify its products?

Representation needs to be universal. In terms of the advancements, when you advertise your lipsticks on a blue-eyed blonde, there should be a picture of how that lipstick would look on a brown-eyed chocolate girl or an Indian girl. Black women buy. You know the billions of dollars that we spend. We really need to be appreciated for our power in the marketplace. When they go into the labs, they need to consider everybody — not a certain group of women — because everybody is buying those products. It's nice when someone has you in mind, when someone is considering your needs.

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Aside from the representation in the cosmetic industry, more attention [should be] paid to the ingredients put into these cosmetics because we're building these things up on our faces and our bodies, layer by layer. One might say “well, it's a little bit of this chemical. It's not going to be an issue because of such small numbers,” but if you're piling different ingredients all over your face all throughout the day, you’re constantly putting these chemicals on our bodies that are not good for us. Many of us don't know, and I didn't know before I got into this business. Now it's something really close to my heart because we're bombarded with crap in the environment and in our foods. We have to try to get a grip on what we're doing to ourselves. It's equally as important.

Best known for: Lifeproof liquid lipsticks that won’t budge.

Must-have product: Lip Whips

What inspired you to start your business?

I've always had an eye for the entrepreneurial spirit. As a child, I started many businesses. Then I noticed that I would be focused on the business for a while and then get over it. When I started Beauty Bakerie, what I liked about it was that it always kept me engaged.

I wanted to own a business, and I knew I wanted to manage [it]. When I thought about the type of business, that kinda came from me being known as a sweetheart, I'm definitely a sweets lover. I'm into all types of pastry. Then I thought, well how can I have any impact on other people like, I'm a woman of faith and I believe in God. I felt like he was telling me at the time, it seems like beauty is a self-centered industry. I felt like he was saying how are you gonna help other people through something so self-centered? I was like okay I got you God. Imma make sure I give back. Imma give back to breast cancer awareness because I like pink. It was very shallow at the time and then later I found out about my breast cancer and having to get a double mastectomy.

What changes can the beauty industry make to diversify its products?

Representation. It's become so popular lately. What's shocking to me is that there's still things some brands out there that cannot [do]. They just cannot be inclusive. It’s like, if you can't be inclusive, you truly have the right to do whatever you want, but where you fail I'm gonna succeed. I'm gonna capture the attention of the audiences that you have shunned and condemned or whatever you've done. I think it's ridiculous what I've been seeing, but I think that the trends will continue. You might see some [brands taking a step back], but that's not case for Beauty Bakerie. It's not a hard thing to do, so that's why I question why it has ever been that way. We have customers from all over the world, of all skin colors, hues, and ranges of gender. People have the right to do what they want and what we wanted to do is serve the world on our platter. We're going to continue to cater to everyone and for that reason, everyone will be able to identify with Beauty Bakerie.

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Best known for: Healing bath bombs that alleviate physical aches.

Must-have product: The Jelly Fish Bath Bomb

What inspired you to start your business?

I was quitting a job [that] was yet another job where the owners were overtly racist and draining, so I didn't want to go back to that. I love creating, and I wanted to keep expressing myself and somehow do what I wanted. I'm super blessed to be here. I have a bunch of invisible illnesses that give me so much pain. Touring in a hardcore band where I'm jumping around all crazy every single night leaves my body in every day. It takes a huge toll. Normally what I do is that I write all of my lyrics in the bathtub, relaxing and kind of letting it out. That's something I always did. I had the thought of, what if I wanted to create something and I wanna keep it within the realm of what I know? What if I did something to help people that I know have invisible illnesses that don't really get to target what they want to target? So I created three bath bombs. They're still my top sellers, and I was like, “Hey guys, I'm making these. They're geared towards aches and pains. If you want one, let me know.” I could not stop creating.

[Within] a year, I had 400 products. It's been two years now, and I've created well over 600 products by myself. It's fun. I have a love-hate relationship with the industry. I brought this conversation up in my Instagram of what self-care is. In 2017, self-care for us is taking a bath, doing a face mask, it's always about buying something beauty-related. It's nice to be able to strike up these conversations with people, give them something. If you have a chronic illness and you can't necessarily splurge on a bath item, U'll send something out to you if I have anything around. I'm just super blessed to do it and to have people like my silly creations that are random thoughts I had middle of the night and jumped up and made. It's awesome.


What changes can the beauty industry make to diversify its products?

A couple of things, like consumerism. I come from the idea [that] capitalism is not a very good thing. When it comes to something that I'm hoping people buy with it being my own brand and answering emails, I'm able to have an actual and genuine relationship with my customers and not even on the surface of, "Hi Billy, how are you doing? Thanks for purchasing." I actually know [them]. My customers would send me pictures of their dog. They'll come to me when they need general life advice, all sort of things. That's something that I never really want to stop, even with all the growth — I welcome it. I think other brands should genuinely start doing it, not even as a means to sell, as a means to use your platform correctly.

In the beauty industry, it makes you feel bad when you see things on Instagram and you see people that are kind of unattainable. It makes you feel bad. That is something I never want my brand to do, so I steer clear of certain words. I try hardly to use words like "anti-aging." I always "useful" instead because I don't agree with not aging. We have to age, there's nothing you can do about it. You have to age. The best thing you can do is use something that makes you feel good.

In terms of people of color, I especially want brands to stop gearing everything towards women only. I’d like to have everything genderless so we can trip away from toxic masculine shit and let everyone know that they can do these things: take a bath, use a damn face mask. Like, come on, guys use a face mask. [For] beauty brands, I see they try to bring in people of color, but it never feels super genuine. It feels like they're trying to sell to us, and they are. It's not a good feeling. I know this especially for young people of color. Growing up and not seeing someone that looks like you, it's eventually the default to you in your head. Then you're like, “sure I'm used to it, I hope this will look good on me and help my skin,” and it's not right.

When I see other brands that are owned by white folks and they're using our butters, it kinda makes me turn my head a little bit because these recipes have always been ours. The homemade items and whipping stuff up has always been something people of color have done naturally. This is something we've always used, and you're not even marketing it to us right. Come on, get with the program.

I hope that people realize these ideas have always been ours. It doesn't any better than what a black brand is creating, and it's always gonna get better. Give small brands a chance to showcase and grow and learn. If we're not giving them a chance to figure out what they can improve on, we're gonna be stuck purchasing from people who don't care about us.

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We Need More Black-Owned Beauty Brands. Four Black CEOs Explain Why.