How To Choose The Correct Actives & Percentages For Melanated Skin

Daily Routines

guide to melanated skincare

Introducing actives into your skincare routine isn’t plain sailing, it’s a process that needs to be handled with a little TLC to avoid skin troubles like irritation and inflammation. For those of you who may not know, active ingredients in a formula are what make the real difference to your complexion; think retinol, glycolic acid, or brightening hero, vitamin C. Active ingredients can reap huge skin rewards however, they can cause reactions if not used carefully and this is especially the case with melanated skin, which is much more prone to inflammation.

To ensure you introduce actives seamlessly and, most importantly, successfully into your routine, Dr. Vanita Rattan, Founder of The Hyperpigmentation Clinic and a specialist in treating melanated skin, gives us a full debriefing. She explains everything, from why melanated skin is more sensitive to actives, to the percentages of actives you should actually be using. Get ready to take notes!

Back to Basics: Understanding Your Skin

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of all things skin acids, it’s important to understand how and why your skin reacts. The Fitzpatrick Scale, which was developed in 1975, measures how your skin reacts to UV light and chemicals, and it’s particularly useful for assessing if your skin type will be more susceptible to strong actives. Dr. Rattan elaborates that the Fitzpatrick Scale can also help you to assess whether you are on the spectrum of melanated skin (type 4, 5, and 6). In which case, this means your melanocytes are a lot more reactive, so it’s important to avoid harsh actives as these may cause irritations.

The fitzpatrick scale

Why Melanated Skin is More Sensitive to Active Ingredients

According to Dr. Vanita Rattan, “Darker skin has more reactive melanocytes (pigment-producing cells), which are easily triggered by inflammation.” She clarifies, “We actually have the same number of melanocytes [as caucasian skin] but ours are just easier to trigger. It’s thought the pathway involves histamine release during inflammation, stimulating MSH (melanin stimulating hormone).”

Dr. Rattan provides some examples, “acne [typically] leads to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, UV rays [from sun damage] can trigger melasma, and any injury such as an insect bite can lead to pigmentation.” As a result, Dr. Rattan explains that it’s important to “minimize any irritation from skincare while also using the most effective ingredients and percentages to achieve our desired results.”

The Actives to Avoid

Dr. Rattan advises to “steer away from irritants and skin sensitizers such as drying alcohol, essential oils, and fragrance. Any ingredient that irritates or inflames darker skin can lead to pigmentation.” She adds that while most people will be fine with these ingredients, it still holds a certain amount of risk.

Similarly, Dr. Rattan also advises to be cautious with actives and look for lower percentages to reduce irritation. If you’re using retinol, ensure it’s less than 0.5%, glycolic acid products should be less than 5%, and lactic acid at less than 7%. Here’s some other active combinations Dr. Rattan advises against:

  • AHA/BHA leave-on product plus ascorbic acid — two acids with a low pH. This can be too irritating for melanated skin. Dr. Vanita Rattan also warns against AHA and BHAs used in conjunction with physical exfoliants.
  • Niacinamide + AHA: Niacinamide optimum pH is higher than for AHAs, so avoid this combination.
  • Niacinamide + L-Ascorbic Acid: Ascorbic acid pH works best at 3-3.5 and niacinamide from pH 5-7.
  • Tranexamic Acid + other acids: Tranexamic acid works best at pH 7, while other acids tend to be a lot lower.

Other skincare combos that are a big no-no in the skincare world are following a physical exfoliator with a retinol product, as it can be too much for the skin barrier. Mixing benzoyl peroxide products with either retinol or AHAs should also be avoided. 

Best Actives for Melanated Skin

Dr. Rattan insists that the best actives depend on the skincare concern you aim to address. Here’s a breakdown per skin concern:

The Best Active Ingredients for Hyperpigmentation

If you want to even out skin tone and calm hyperpigmentation, Dr. Rattan recommends a daily routine that includes products containing tyrosinase inhibitors. If you’re thinking “tyro-what?”, she explains: “Tyrosinase is the enzyme needed to make melanin. [The aim is] to slow the rate of tyrosinase by using tyrosinase inhibitors (e.g. alpha-arbutin, dioic acid, and vitamin C) if you want to reduce hyperpigmentation.”

actives for melanated skin Source: The Inkey List, The Ordinary

One of her favorite tyrosinase inhibitors is niacinamide. We’re currently obsessed with The Inkey List Niacinamide Oil Control Serum, $7, as the lightweight serum helps control oil production and restore uneven skin tone. She also recommends sodium ascorbyl phosphate, which can be found in the cult classic, The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5, $8. Other helpful actives include licorice root extract, alpha arbutin, ferulic acid and phytic acid.

The Best Active Ingredients For Mature Skin

If you want to soften fine lines and wrinkles, Dr. Rattan suggests a skincare routine packed with gentle chemical exfoliants such as mandelic and lactic acid. Add hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and peptides to the mix, and these will help rebuild and strengthen your skin’s epidermis. Another great addition to any routine is antioxidants like vitamin A, C, and E, which will work overtime to brighten your glow game and protect your skin from environmental aggressors.

actives for melanated skin Source: The Ordinary, The Inkey List, Paula’s Choice

Her favorite products include The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA, $8, as this buffs away dead skin cells without overwhelming the skin. For a surge of moisture, we’d recommend The Inkey List Peptide Moisturizer, $15, a rich cream that increases your skin’s elasticity over time for soft, supple, and firm skin. Finally, for an influx of antioxidants, Dr. Rattan suggests the Paula’s Choice RESIST Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum, $39, enriched with a blend of antioxidant-rich vitamins and botanical extracts to minimize deep wrinkles and leave your skin healthier and more radiant than before.

The Best Active Ingredients to Soothe and Calm Acne

actives for melanated skinSource: The Inkey List, Paula’s Choice

If you have acne-prone skin, Dr. Rattan suggests niacinamide to nix oil production, salicylic acid to buff away dead skin and unclog pores, benzoyl peroxide for its anti-microbial properties, as well as vitamin C to brighten pigmentation. Although, with vitamin C products, she warns against ascorbic acid and instructs you to opt for sodium ascorbyl phosphate, magnesium Ascorbyl phosphate, or tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate as these are less likely to irritate your skin. Her go-to products? The Inkey List Salicylic Acid, $15, and Paula’s Choice CLEAR Regular Strength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment, $18.

The Best Active Ingredients to Combat Dark Circles

actives for melanated skinSource: The Ordinary, Dr. V

Another common issue you may want to address is dark circles, which are actually trending on TikTok right now, FYI.

For dark circles, Dr. Rattan recommends tyrosinase inhibitors once again, like niacinamide, alpha arbutin, dioic acid and licorice root extract. Other well-known ingredients she suggests include caffeine to dilute the blood vessels that cause the appearance of a shadow, HA sodium hyaluronate for moisture, and antioxidants like sodium ascorbyl phosphate and retinyl palmitate to brighten.

Product-wise, Dr. Rattan shares our love for The Ordinary Caffeine Solution 5% + EGCG, $8, which is proven to combat puffiness and brighten dark under eyes. Dr. Rattan has also formulated her own Dark Circles Kit, $160, which features two creams enriched with caffeine, shea butter, and sodium hyaluronate.

Brands We Love That Are Made for Melanin-Rich Skin:


A luxury line of skincare staples made with Africa’s most lush organic ingredients and curated with women of colors’ skin needs in mind.

What to Shop: Cleansing Oil, $63

This holy grail item is formulated to help treat hyperpigmentation as you cleanse. Licorice root and plankton extracts elevate your skin’s glow while tackling dark spots for a brighter and more even complexion.



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A post shared by TOPICALS (@mytopicals)

A brand that’s proudly giving the middle finger to toxic skin standards and encouraging us to embrace skin acceptance.

What to Shop: Faded Brightening & Clearing Gel, $36

This skin-brightening serum gel consists of azelaic, tranexamic, and kojic acid, a powerful trio that helps inhibit excess production of melanin, lessening the appearance of discolorations. Over time, you’ll notice an improvement in your skin’s texture too, and this is due to skin-perfectors niacinamide and Centella Asiatica leaf extract.



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A post shared by 4.5.6 Melanin Skincare (@456skin)

456 is “closing the skincare-race gap” with scientific and customized product offerings curated for melanin-rich skin.

What to Shop: Tonic Oh! Treatment Lotion, $48

A skin glow-up in liquid form. Hyaluronic acid and alpinum flower leaf extract boosts hydration levels and brings much-needed balance back to your skin. Paired with this skin-reviving duo is salicylic acid to keep clogged pores in check and improve your skin’s overall texture.



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A post shared by MELYON® (@officialmelyon)

Founder Roger Dupé takes skincare back to its roots with a range inspired by West African skincare rituals and one that combines science with skin-nurturing botanicals.

What to Shop: Milk Cleanser, $27

One of the brand’s best-sellers, this gentle cleanser washes away impurities without leaving your skin feeling tight or stripped of moisture. Salicylic acid and ginger root extract are key ingredients in this blend, a skin-evening duo that treats dark spots and brightens tone.

ROSE Ingleton MD


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A post shared by ROSE Ingleton MD (@rosemdskin)

Dr. Ingleton creates a range of clean and effective skincare essentials containing Jamaica’s best natural fruit extracts. From blemishes, dullness, redness, and dehydration, there’s a solution for all skin woes.

What to Shop: Complexion Brightening Booster, $70

Infused with a powerful cocktail of citric acid, malic acid, lactic acids, and peptides, this miracle serum adds some plumpness back to your skin texture and works serious wonders for uneven tone.

For more skincare tips for melanated skin, check out 5 common skincare myths that need to be debunked.

Disclaimer: Every product we review has been independently selected and tested without bias by our editorial team. We never take payment to review products, however, some brands allow affiliate links, so we may earn a commission if you purchase a product by clicking on one of our links.