Caring for Olive and Light Brown Skin

Skin Cancer Risk

When it comes to skin care and protecting your complexion, people with olive or light brown skin may face particular challenges.

Your skin care regimen should depend mostly on the type of skin you’ve got: oily, dry, combination, or normal. But skin tone plays a supporting role, and that’s why it’s important for people with olive and light brown skin to be familiar with the conditions they potentially face, such as postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, vitiligo, melasma, keloids, and skin cancer.

What Causes Certain Skin Tones to Appear Olive or Light Brown?
Regardless of race or ethnicity, everyone’s got the same number of melanocyte skin cells, and those contain structures called melanosomes. It’s these melanosomes, and the melanin they produce (melanin is the pigment that colors the skin) that determine our skin tone. People with dark skin have melanocytes that contain larger melanosomes — and more of them — than people with olive or light brown skin, so their melanosomes make more melanin. People with fair skin have melanocytes that contain fewer and smaller melanosomes than people with medium skin tones, and their melanosomes produce less melanin.

So while lighter-skinned Africans and African Americans, as well as Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and people from the Middle East, India, and the Mediterranean have the same amount of melanocyte skin cells as both darker and fairer people, the size and number of their melanosomes fall somewhere in the middle, resulting in olive or light brown skin.

Potential Skin Problems
A common condition among people with olive and light brown skin is postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, which happens when a pimple, scrape, cut, or burn leaves a dark mark, like a scar, at the point of injury. Using liberal amounts of sunscreen can help prevent this, and procedures such as bleaching, chemical peels, and microdermabrasion can be effective at fading the affected areas.

Olive and light brown skin is also prone to vitiligo, a condition that makes patches of the skin look splotchy and white due to a loss of pigment. To treat vitiligo, doctors recommend a variety of treatments, including steroid creams, laser and light therapies, intense pulsed light (IPL), and skin grafting.

Also common is melasma, which most often affects young women with “brownish” skin, according to the National Institutes of Health. Melasma — also known as the mask of pregnancy — causes dark patches to appear on the cheeks, nose, and forehead, especially in expectant mothers. The culprit is hormonal fluctuations, which you can’t do much about. Typically, melasma fades or disappears completely soon after delivery, or after a woman stops taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy. You can also ask your dermatologist about topical steroid creams, chemical peels, microdermabrasion, or laser treatments.

These puffy, dark pink marks occur more commonly in medium to dark toned skin. The area around an injury increases in size, and the scar tissue surrounding the wound darkens and grows into a bulbous scar. Keloids often appear after surgery, but they can also result from any kind of cut or skin infection or even acne, ear piercing, or vaccinations. They are harmless and don’t require treatment, but if they bother you, ask your dermatologist about corticosteroid injections, surgery, laser treatments, and other therapies that can help reduce their size.

Skin Cancer Risk
Just because you tan rather than burn when you’re out in the sun doesn’t mean you aren’t at risk for skin cancer. In fact, the notion that darker skin tones aren’t at risk is completely false. Yes, darker skin contains more melanin, but not enough to protect it from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. Experts at the American Academy of Dermatology warn that in people of color, including those with light brown or olive skin, melanoma commonly develops on the palms and soles, on or in between fingers and toes, under the fingernails, in or around the mouth or nose, or on the genital area. So keep an eye out for any new moles or dark spots that have changed in size, shape, or color, especially in one of these areas. If you notice anything suspicious, see your dermatologist ASAP.

Keep in mind that when melanoma does occur in darker skin, it can be more aggressive, so people with deeper skin tones are less likely to survive. If you’ve got light brown or olive skin, you’ve got to be just as vigilant about skin exams, mole checks, and sun protection as fair-skinned folks. Always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 (30 is even better); stick to lighter formulas (sprays or gels), and steer clear of thick sunscreens that contain zinc or titanium, which can make darker-toned skin look ashy.