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The best make-up brands for darker skin

Researcher Leah Gordon, looks at how easy it is for people of colour to use the websites of popular UK make-up brands and what selection of shades they offer for non-white skin tones.

Leah Gordon

Since the early noughties there has been a significant growth in cosmetics for non-white people available in major pharmacies and supermarkets in the UK. More and more brands offer darker shades of foundation, but the variety of shades remains quite limited. This growth is obviously welcome, but, as a relatively dark-skinned Black woman, I still struggle to find shades that match my skin.

I therefore decided to investigate make-up brands and the accessibility of their websites and range of products for people of colour.

According to my dark-skinned friends and family, the three go-to make-up brands for Black people in the UK are LA Girl - a US brand available in the UK, Bobbi Brown - by Estée Lauder Company (ELC) and Fenty - by LVMH.

But four companies dominate the UK make-up scene (Coty, Boots, L’Oréal and ELC) and I wanted to find out how these all compare on their approach to the BME community.

      I had three questions for these companies and their brands:

      • Was it easy to navigate to cosmetic ranges for dark skin?
      • What proportion of face ranges offered products for dark skin?
      • How many shades were available for dark-skinned people within each range?

      To answer my questions, I surveyed the websites of the 30 brands which together account for two-thirds of the UK make-up market.

      Brands covered:

      • Coty: Bourjois, Burberry, Cover Girl, Rimmel, Max Factor.
      • Boots: Natural Collection, No.7, Sleek, Soap and Glory, CYO.
      • L’Oréal: Logona, L’Oréal, Lancôme, Maybelline, NYX, Urban Decay, Santé, YSL.
      • Estée Lauder Company (ELC): Aveda, Becca, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Glamglow, La Mer, MAC, Origins, Smashbox, Tom Ford, Too Faced.


      • LVMH: Fenty
      • Comedic: L.A. Girl

      What did I find?

      Most companies did not clearly show whether a product or shade was appropriate for Black people, dark skin Mediterranean people, South Asian or East Asian people.

      The language used to describe shades was often ambiguous, and the vast majority only showed pale shades, or shades for ‘white’ people, on models. ‘Darker’ shades were mostly not shown on models.

      Although my research showed that there is a greater variety of make-up choice for BME people with fair skin than those with darker skin tones, there is still a growing number of face products that are suitable for BME make-up consumers.

      Our recommendation

      L.A. Girl

      L.A.Girl, a popular brand for Black people, had 12 face products available and 30 different shades available for the BME community, which put it in the top 10 of the brands ranked by this metric.

      The brand also offered a colour match service for BME people with ‘dark skin’ in the form of an online quiz and pigment matching products.

      The company also score 11.5 on the Ethical Consumer rankings system, and seems like the best overall choice.

      Other good brands for BME shoppers

      Fenty (LVMH)

      For the most face products for BME consumers (20), and one of the most user-friendly websites, no brands from the big four matched up to Fenty. It also had the most diverse pool of models, including male and trans models, with models for every shade of product it sells. This research qualifies its popularity amongst my BME friends and family.

      However although it came out top for catering for BME consumers, Fenty is owned by LVMH, which is Ethical Consumer’s Brand to Avoid in this market, due to its low Ethiscore (3.5), its chairman’s support of the Trump administration, as well as sales of fur.

      NYX (L’Oréal)

      Although its website was not easy to navigate, NYX is a standout brand for BME make-up consumers. It offers a range of shades in its foundations, concealers, highlighters, contour kits and setting powders.

      Its descriptors are relatively uniform across its face products. The adjectives used to describe shades are also used across the L’Oréal company.
      NYX products are mostly classified as ‘light’, ‘medium’ and ‘deep’. Products I determined were suitable for BME consumers were mostly displayed as ‘medium’ or ‘deep’ along with other adjectives (e.g. nutmeg, ebony, etc.). Colour swatches and models which helped me to determine their suitability.

      The company has an overall Ethiscore of 4.

      MAC (ELC)

      MAC offers a range of shades for BME make-up consumers in its foundations, powders and concealers.

      Some products use simple and relatively universal descriptors to label shades; for example, ‘light’, ‘medium’, ‘deep’ and ‘dark’. Most product shades are identified by two letters and two digits: for example, NC50. The colour swatches and descriptors make it easy for consumers to understand the codes. Navigating this system was frustrating at first. However, in the end I preferred this approach over the ambiguous approach favoured by other brands, e.g. many brands that use adjectives like ‘honey’, ‘sand’ and ‘warm’ which are subjective and confusing.

      The company has an overall Ethiscore of 5.5.

      Our research in more detail

      Companies with the most user-friendly websites for ‘dark skin’.

      Best rated: Smashbox (ELC)

      This brand was the most user friendly and informative. You can filter products by Light/Dark/Medium/Fair. Each product is labelled with the number of shades available so consumers can determine the likely availability of BME appropriate products - the more shades, the more variety. Each shade is displayed using before and after model pictures.    

      Also ranked highly were:

      La Mer (ELC) and Estee Lauder (ELC) - whose sites both had a Light/Medium/Deep filter.

      Our method:

      I navigated to the main page of each brand. From there I clicked through to face products. I used filters to try to navigate to BME appropriate products. The ease with which I could do this helped me determine how to score companies for question one.

      Companies that provided a link or links that explicitly navigate you to products for BME people were awarded a ‘1’.

      Those that made it possible to filter products based on complexion qualified for a ‘2’.

      Brands that immediately displayed colour swatches or allowed me to filter results based on complexion also scored a 1 or a 2.

      The fewer clicks required to access the information I wanted, the higher the brand scored. 3 (or 4) was awarded to companies that had options for BME products in most (or a minority) of the face ranges but didn’t allow you to filter your search for these products.

      Companies that offer a colour match service for BME people with ‘dark skin’:

      • Fenty (online quiz)    
      • LA Girl (online quiz and pigment matching products)
      • MAC (online quiz and pigment matching products)
      • No.7 (in store)
      • NYX  (virtual model to test out shades)
      • Smashbox (online quiz)     

      Top 5 brands by products available for BME people

      Number of face products found for BME people with ‘dark skin’ (with most shades found of any product).

      Fenty: 20 products and 32 shades

      NYX: 18 products and 24 shades

      MAC:15 products and 21 shades

      Bobbi Brown: 14 products and 28 shades

      Estée Lauder: 13 products and 31 shades
      The full list of brands, products and shades can be found below.

      Our method:

      To investigate this I noted down how many products for the face (foundation, concealer, highlighter, powder, bronzer) were displayed on the website.

      For most brands I had to count this on the screen, for some this information was given in brackets next to the ‘face’ drop down.

      I used this information to work out what percentage of the brands’ face range catered for the needs of dark-skinned consumers.

      I listed every product and colour in the face range that seemed suited to BME people.

      Adjectives such as ‘ebony’, ‘café’, ‘cocoa’ made it clear that a product was intended for dark skinned consumers.

      Shades for those with lighter skin were usually described with reference to nuts and honey.

      The ambiguous adjectives used by most companies often made it difficult to objectively determine the suitability of a shade for BME consumers.

      Brands that used less ambiguous descriptors for products and displayed them on a model and/or with a colour swatch made it far easier for me to determine which products were suitable for BME consumers. For example, Estée Lauder uses the categories ‘light’, ‘medium’, ‘deep’ and ‘dark’ as umbrella terms to classify shades.

      Companies with fewer shades tended to have less variation, offering less products for darker or the darkest skinned people.

      Full list of brands by products and shade
      Brand Products Shades
      Fenty 20 32
      NYX 18  24
      MAC 15 21
      Bobbi Brown 14 28
      Estee Lauder 13     31
      Urban Decay 12   35
      Lancome 12 17
      LA Girl 12 30
      CYO 10 2
      Clinique 10 21
      YSL 10 16
      BECCA 9 29
      Max Factor   8 7
      Smashbox 8 19
      Tom Ford 8 26
      Rimmel 7 8
      No.7 7 4
      L’Oreal 7 23
      La Mer 7 10
      Sleek 6 2
      Burberry 5 2
      Cover Girl 5 2
      Maybelline 5 9
      Too Faced 5 18
      Bourjois 4 7
      Aveda 2 3
      Soap and Glory 1 2
      Origins 1   23
      Natural Collection, Logona, Sante, Glamglow 0 0