A simple tweet by Dominique Apollon – a campaigner for racial justice – showing his finger covered with a brown plaster highlighted what people of colour already know: few products are made with us in mind.
The picture showed Dominique wearing a plaster designed for those with darker skin that perfectly camouflaged against his own brown skin. The image brought him to tears – likely a feeling of relief – which many with darker skin can relate to.
Globally, those with paler skin are in the minority, yet products ranging from plasters to medicalised patches continue to be made in only one skin tone. Too often it feels like we are not part of the marketing consultation.
As a child I was quite accident-prone, regularly play-fighting with my older brother or falling over in the playground and getting cuts and bruises on my shins. The teacher would give me a skin-toned plaster, slap it on and I would continue to play. As a primary school kid, wearing a plaster was a real badge of honour: we usually got a sticker too, to show that we had been brave.
At aged 12 I read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses in which she describes the world almost in reverse, where everything is made to cater to the needs of “crosses” who possess darker skin. When a nought (white) child cuts herself, she is forced to wear a dark brown plaster as there are simply none to match her paler skin.
After reading that passage, every time I saw a pink plaster on my brown skin I felt ashamed. Why was I forced to use something that clearly was not meant or designed for me? For a while I avoided using these skin-tone plasters. Wearing them felt silly, and I saw it as a way of exercising control in my own life over a wider system that I felt I had no control over. Eventually, I conceded that the world was not going to change at the pace it needed to, and that I should focus on bigger problems.
Since becoming a doctor I have realised that the problem extends far beyond that of a plaster; the very existence of people of colour is routinely ignored by the pharmaceutical industry.
As a sexual and reproductive health doctor, I regularly counsel women on their contraceptive methods, one of these being the combined hormonal contraceptive patch. Several years ago I was counselling a young, black woman about the patch and giving my usual spiel on how it could be used discretely, when she cut me off: “Does it come in different shades?”
I had been ignoring a glaringly obvious issue – the answer was no – it came in one, singular salmon shade, which on her skin and mine was the equivalent of wearing a luminous square. For those of a darker skin tone, this patch was not at all discrete, and for those that needed to conceal its use from family, friends or a partner, it was an absolute no. Despite this being an appropriate contraceptive method for her, it was made completely inappropriate by its exclusive design. What should have been an inconspicuous contraceptive patch was lit up like a beacon.
Isn’t it time that pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers acknowledged the huge ethnic diversity amongst their consumers? The problem extends to nearly all pharmaceutical products that are meant to be applied to the skin – from pain relief patches to surgical tape.
Some independent companies have been set up on the basis of providing diverse consumer products, but there has been little to no progress by large pharmaceutical companies to meet the needs of their consumer base, which extend to users in the global south. It seems ludicrous that consumers from the Asian and African continents are forced to use products in a tone which does not match theirs.
Whilst I welcome brands such as Tru Colour, which are catering to darker skin tones using the tag line “Diversity in Healing”, it is not acceptable that those with darker skin are seen to be a niche market, particularly for products that are universally used. It is time that everyone, from parents to doctors, is able to select a plaster or patch that meets the user’s needs, and that pale skin tones are no longer seen as “neutral”.
Annabel Sowemimo is a sexual and reproductive health doctor and writer
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