What are the nuances of being a woman and a Black woman in dermatology and how does that influence your work?
Yes, definitely there are lots of nuances when it comes to skin of color and to be completely honest, it wasn't until my residency that I realized that I would have a focus on skin of color. There's a demand for people who are understanding of skin of color and so people just automatically seek me out. Secondly, there comes a point as a Black woman in medicine or a Black person in medicine where you realize that no one else is going to do it. I don't want to say no one else is going to care, but no one else is going to understand the problems and the culture of Blackness and Black skin the way that a Black person will. And I think that goes for every aspect of medicine be it cardiology, be it pulmonology, be it gynecology. There are so many things historically and culturally that influence the way that we interact with medicine. I love being Black, I think it's just a great thing and so I knew that there are no dermatologists that are going to celebrate Blackness in a way that I as a Black person could.
Tell me a bit about your background, you know, in terms of your career, how did you come to be a dermatologist?
My introduction to dermatology started as a teenager with skin problems. As a teenager, I had pretty severe acne to the point where my parents spent so much time and money taking me from dermatologist to dermatologist, but we couldn’t find someone that could solve the problem. With the knowledge that I have now, I know that treating acne isn't that complicated. It was four years of having acne and kind of giving up on it and feeling like this was just something that was part of my life. Then I ended up going to see a Black dermatologist and within two months, my acne was clear. The process of treating hyperpigmentation takes a little bit longer than treating acne and so over the process of treating the hyperpigmentation, I gained a high level of respect for dermatology because I realized how much it had affected my quality of life.
I realized that I started to sit in the back of the classroom. I stopped raising my hands. I had become a lot less outspoken than I previously was because I felt that when people were looking at me, they were looking at my skin and my acne and not listening to what I had to say. So that personal experience sparked my interest in dermatology. When I entered medical school, I was first interested in pediatrics and pediatric endocrinology. I thought the obesity epidemic was something that I could make a big impact on. I thought about other things like psychiatry, I thought about women's health, but ultimately in medical school I got really lucky and I got linked with a team that does quality of life research within dermatology. That nailed it for me. It's such a rewarding field because not only is it fun to do on a day-to-day basis, but it's also nice to have this kind of longer impact on people's lives and people's careers.
From a more practical perspective, I grew up in Alabama and I went to the University of Alabama for undergrad, where I studied biology. And then I went to Emory medical school in Atlanta and then after that, I came to New York and I did a dermatology residency at NYU. Then I also met my fiancé in New York so, I have stayed in New York where I am in private practice.
“no one else is going to understand the problems and the culture of Blackness and Black skin the way that a Black person will”
Hyperpigmentation is a big skincare problem among Black women. And as a dermatologist, I'm sure you're front-facing in terms of Black women having to deal with that.
Hyperpigmentation is probably the number one concern of Black women and I think that it is a complex problem. My number one thing that I tell patients is that the quickest way to treat hyperpigmentation is to prevent hyperpigmentation. It’s important to wear sun protection daily and adding antioxidants that are going to shield you from both sun damage and also shield you from pollution-based damage. Next is treating any active conditions that you have. If you have acne or eczema, you should be aggressive in treating those early versus waiting for them to brew over several months, that's going to be the quickest way from that point. In terms of treating hyperpigmentation, it takes patience. Oftentimes when people try to go for the quick route, and they end up causing more hyperpigmentation from the route that was supposed to make things go quickly.
There are a ton of really great active ingredients that we have that are effective for hyperpigmentation and they are available over-the-counter and there are also prescription-based options. Then there are always procedures that you can do to speed up a process in a controlled manner. You want to make sure that you're going to someone who is qualified in treating skin of color because you can cause more trouble if you're not in the right hands with procedures.
What are some common misconceptions about skincare for Black people?
Historically there haven't been a lot of things that were created exclusively for Black people. A lot of the skincare products and the haircare products that we use have been things that were passed down. However, there are definitely more elegant formulations that we can be using on our skin or our hair. What necessarily worked for someone you know or for your parents doesn't necessarily work for you. It's time for us to diversify the products that we use.
“The quickest way to treat hyperpigmentation is to prevent hyperpigmentation.”
Why were you willing to partner with Ustawi?
Everything was so right that I couldn't find a reason to say no. I think that Ustawi has a really beautiful story. The spark of the idea that started it, the practicality of the ingredients being sourced directly from Africa, and the creation of a touchpoint with ingredients that are grown and sourced directly from Africa. My partnership with Ustawi started in 2020 when I think there was this loneliness of being a Black American and this void that I think we were all looking to fill. I think Natasha is an icon and she has every reason to be celebrated and respected. I also think that it's very lucky that the team from every aspect of Ustawi is completely committed and in love with the concept of Ustawi.
“The story of Ustawi at the very core of it is that from its very origin from its very thought, it is about celebrating skin of color and nourishing and taking care of skin of color.”
It's not a PR thing. It's not a PR company that has come in at the last minute to package this brand. It's that from the very beginning, the brand was very thoughtful in who it's for, who it wants to celebrate and how it wants to make people feel. It's hard because sometimes as a consumer when you see something, you wonder if it's real and authentic. What makes Ustawi great is that it's very real, there is this very genuine energy behind it. And then from a more scientific perspective, the idea of anti-pollution is of the moment. I've noticed this since I've been practicing in New York City where I get so many patients that when they move to the city, their skin just goes haywire. So, I have a personal interest in what happens to us when we move to urban cities. There's emerging data documenting how communities of color are more affected by climate change, urbanization, and pollution.. So, I think that anti-pollution as a major pillar for this brand is really important. And I think that that's going to continue to grow. There's all of this data that's coming out that pollution contributes to hyperpigmentation and dark spots, aging of the skin, and the disruption of the skin barrier. It’s a very real thing. The philosophy of the Ustawi is beautiful, but also the scientific pillar that it's backed on is relevant.
Is there a gap in the industry for skincare brands dedicated to tackling these issues specific to Black skin or Brown skin, and what role do you think Ustawi plays in fitting into that?
Yes, there's definitely room for Ustawi and there's a demand and even a yearning for a brand like Ustawi. There are multiple and different gaps that it fills. One, it is a vegan and a clean brand. And there's becoming more and more of an interest in what clean beauty means and how effective it can be. There is a desire to move towards the clean beauty tag. I think the second thing is the Ustawi story. As a Black person, there is this reality where you are marketed to and you are sold to, but you don't necessarily feel appreciated. So, we have reached this point, with everything that happened in 2020, where brands are aware that Black people have power and that they have financial power, and that they need to feel seen for them to spend their money with them. That doesn't necessarily mean that a brand truly understands and truly cares or is focused on treating and caring for and celebrating skin of color. The story of Ustawi at the very core of it is that from its very origin from its very thought, it is about celebrating, nourishing, and taking care of skin of color.
"I love being Black, I think it's just a great thing and so I knew that there are no dermatologists that are going to celebrate Blackness in a way that I as a Black person could."
What are your thoughts on the level of representation in the beauty and skincare industry?
I'm super excited to see what's happening in terms of print and video media in terms of advertising. I think that we are experiencing a revolution. There's still a lot to be done on the behind-the-scenes of the beauty industry of who is in leadership positions. Who's running the show who is giving the autonomy to create ideas from the start. And who's financially benefiting from all of these beauty products that are being marketed to Black people. So super excited for the change that has come. But we can still make more noise and get more change.
What are three or four important skincare products that every woman should you have?
Number one I would say is sun protection because when it comes to hyperpigmentation and when it comes to aging so much can be prevented by using sun protection daily. When it comes to finding sun protection that you like, I always tell my patients is that takes a little bit of time and some trial and error. Not everything looks good on your skin and not everything feels good on your skin, but taking the time when you're young to find the holy grail product will be worth it because you will save yourself so much time on the back end in terms of anti-aging procedures and whatnot.
Number two, I am a huge fan of Retinol. Once you get into your late twenties you should start using either over-the-counter or prescription-strength Retinol. It does a great job of evening out the skin tone, exfoliating the skin, just helping the skin look brightest and its most radiant. And it also helps to undo some of the damage that we've done either intentionally or unintentionally to our skin.
Number three is an Antioxidant. I think that we're learning more and more about the importance of antioxidants to the point where it's almost becoming my number two and that's just because antioxidants are really helpful in that most of the damage that we know that's done by either the sun or done by pollution is done in the form of oxidative stress and so antioxidants neutralize that before it can affect your skin.
Number four is a gentle cleanser and it’s becoming a big interest point for me. You want to start your skincare routine with something effective when you take off whatever makeup you're wearing, you also want to take off everything that's happened to your skin from the outside world. Again, I’m talking about pollution, but you also don't want to strip your skin barrier. A gentle cleanser is something that everyone should prioritize.
What does your skincare routine at entail?
That's exactly what it looks like. In the mornings, I use a gentle cleanser. I use an antioxidant serum; I use a moisturizer and I use sun protection. And then in the evening, I do a gentle cleanser, a prescription retinoid, and a moisturizer.
Interviewed by Jiji Ugboma for Ustawi Blog.