Racial Biases in the Beauty Industry

Story by Madeline Wilson Photos by Kassidy Malcolm

Since the release of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line of all-inclusive foundation shades, many people, including beauty influencers such as Nyma Tang and Tati, have begun to debate the motives behind brands that produce shades that favor one skin tone.

Whether it be within social media platforms or mainstream marketing, questions are starting to arise about the intended market within the makeup industry and if a racial bias is present.

Marketing Strategies

Most makeup brands create uniquely enticing packaging in order to sell their products. From the gothic inspirations of Kat von D to the beachy designs of Tarte, every company attempts to develop packaging that gives their audience an insight into the theme of their brand.

After the product is developed and packaged, it is then time to begin various marketing strategies. Whether it be blurbs on social media, informative YouTube ads or promotional materials being sent to influencers, makeup brands start a buzz surrounding their newest release. As potential customers continue to watch, the excitement gradually brews until the product is finally available to be purchased.


Intended Audience

This is not always the case for everyone who consumes these advertisements. It could be that the individual is simply not interested in makeup or that specific product. However, some people scroll through posts or watch promotional teasers and realize that no one in these ads looks like them, nor is there a shade that would match their skin.

Is this because makeup brands are being careless, or because they do not intend to sell products to those with deeper skin tones?

Junior English Language and Literature major Emily Messall explains, “With their ads all being white people and their shade ranges gearing toward lighter-skinned and medium-toned people, I feel they’re [saying] these are the people who deserve to wear makeup and deserve to feel pretty.”

One of the larger issues within these promotional materials is that many are not marketed toward the whole consumer-base of people who buy makeup. Sophomore Elementary Education major Marissa Bonner explains, “They’re trying to give off the impression that it is for everyone … but they’re not doing it very well.”

Wherever the person is within the shade range, there is still an equal chance that they will want to purchase makeup. It may not be the willingness of the customer to buy the product, but the lack of shades created.

Shade Ranges


If brands aren’t developing shades that match a broad spectrum of skin tones, there will be a less diversified group of models presented in promotions. But, does this limit the consumer?

If brands are deciding not to produce shades with darker pigments for those who need them, it often forces the individual to become resourceful. Bonner states, “I always have to mix foundation with my concealer to make it light enough or dark enough to match my skin tone.”

It sometimes becomes a challenge for people with darker skin to find a shade that matches them, and often it takes multiple products to even come close.

“Why do other people have the opportunity to have any shade that they want [or] color that they’re looking for? Why do I have to go and spend $90 to find a foundation that actually looks decent?” asks Bonner.

The lack of adequate shades to fulfill the need of the average consumer has placed a negative spotlight on many brands that are creating non-inclusive products (Insider). This gap between the brand and customer has been brought to public attention not only by the influencers that use their fan base to create awareness, but also by the general increase in understanding of racial issues.

For example, YouTuber Nyma Tang uploaded a video upon the release of the Tarte Shape Tape foundation line, which stirred a lot of controversy over accusations of limited shade ranges. Tang explains in her video that she believes the release was intentional. This created a rift between Tarte, Tang and her audience because many questions about the release were left unanswered.

One common misconception about people with deep skin tones is that they may not wear makeup because of the lack of adequate products. Messall illustrates that some of these brands may believe that because darker skin has not been seen as beautiful in the past means that people don’t want to feel pretty wearing makeup now.

“The media and people in general have [recently] been talking about Black beauty. Years before this, Black beauty wasn’t a thing. If I saw people like me, they weren’t emphasizing how beautiful they are,” says Bonner.

The Purpose of Makeup

Makeup has been consistently expanding for thousands of years. As people experiment with different colors, styles and shades, many are able to push the limits of their comfort zone. CWU Costume Shop Manager Cat McMillen explains, “You have to be daring; makeup is daring.”

From practicing with your mom’s makeup to watching how-to videos posted by your favorite ‘beauty gurus,’ many people have stories to tell about their experiences with makeup. “I learned the techniques they were teaching by having them do it on me,” says McMillen. “A lot of people in the industry start in department stores.”

Although the symbolism of makeup has been altered over time, it has recently become an individualistic form of self-expression. People are able to represent themselves in ways that were once limited. Bonner says, “Anything you are feeling on the inside … you can wear on the outside.”

McMillen adds, “It [isn’t] about the mask; it [is] about finding your inner beauty.”

Wearing makeup can also be therapeutic. Some enjoy the process of creativity and technique that is available when doing makeup. Messall explains, “It’s relaxing for me because I get to put on a YouTube video … and make myself look pretty.”

Makeup allows for someone to express themselves in a way that is both entertaining and enhances their perception of their own beauty.

The Implications of Racial Biases

Although many people are able to find joy in learning and celebrating beauty through makeup, others have been deprived this experience. Walking into a store and being unable to find any products that match your skin tone can be deterring for some.

The beauty industry is ignoring or forgetting large groups of individuals that also want to communicate their beauty through the use of makeup. In order to end the exclusiveness of some brands, recognition that all skin tones are beautiful should be made and celebrated.