Billie Cormier dreamed of feeling good about her face--confident enough to let people see her without a trace of makeup. But she was losing hope.
Dark patches of skin on her forehead, on her eyelids, under her eyes and around her mouth had disfigured her face. "I wouldn't leave the house without makeup," said Cormier, 55. She would wear a heavy foundation, she said, "even to go to the store because I never knew who I'd run into. I had to do this all my adult life."
Over the years, parts of her brown skin were marred with splotches the color of burnt wood. Cormier spent thousands of dollars in skin care salons, receiving steam treatments, facials and instructions such as to rub an ice cube on her face each morning.
"They did what they could," Cormier said. "But it didn't help."
Cormier's facial wars ended when she met Barbara Dickens, a skin care specialist who runs Fayces salon in Culver City.
"Barbara discovered that I'm allergic to the sun," Cormier said. The problem, she says, was hyperpigmentation (excessive production of melanocytes, or color cells), a skin condition that affects African Americans, Latinos and Asians.
It is one of several skin problems, Dickens says, that primarily affect people of color--and which few skin care specialists know how to treat.
Some dermatologists concede that little research has been done on black skin care. "There is a lack of research monies, because you spend money where you can make money," said Dr. Paul Kelly, a dermatologist in the department of internal medicine at Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Dickens has run her salon for six years. In the late 1970s, she left her corporate job as a training representative with Bank of America. After earning a teaching credential in cosmetology, she took a job as a skin care assistant to two Los Angeles dermatologists.
"I fell in love with it, and as I learned the medical aspects of skin care I was inspired," said Dickens, who trained with the dermatologists for five years. "And I realized the black community really needed something like this."
Many skin care salons and dermatologists, she said, don't know how to deal with hyperpigmentation, which is caused by problems including acne, repeated exposure to the sun and allergic reactions to alloys in jewelry or to medications.
Dickens solved Cormier's problem by prescribing a regimen that included the application of sun block every day. People of color, Dickens says, wrongly believe they are invulnerable to the sun.
"The sun ages Caucasians faster than people of color," she said. "So we think, 'We don't age, so we don't need the protection.' . . . But the long-term result of too much sun is skin discoloration.
"Most of the time, dermatologists just tell people they have to live with the problem," Dickens said. Or in the case of hyperpigmentation, they won't pursue the patient's background to find out whether the problem is caused by certain medications, allergies to soaps or lotions, or diet."
Dickens says her strong suit is treating acne. "Some people have given up by the time they come to me," said Dickens, who added that the largest percentage of her clientele are acne sufferers.
Two other often-overlooked skin maladies, both of which primarily affect African American males, are razor bumps and keloids. Razor bumps, Dickens says, resemble acne and are an inflammatory response to ingrown hair. Keloids are skin growths caused by shaving too close or using unclean shaving implements.
The keloids are painful, itchy, disfiguring and often cause dark splotches. Left untreated, Dickens said, they can spread.
Anthony Wade of Inglewood had keloids on the back of his neck. "They were little bumps at first, but they later became one big mass of reddened, sensitive flesh," Wade, 35, said. It was embarrassing, he said, and each haircut was a painful experience.
He sought out a black dermatologist, who prescribed an anti-itch medication, a shampoo and a gel to apply to his scalp. When he saw no results, he visited a herbalist, who gave him herbal remedies and a foul-smelling scalp salve.
"She told me I needed to purify my blood and stop eating red meat," Wade said.
That didn't work either.
A family friend referred him to Dickens, who gave him a medicated cream and a special shampoo, which solved the problem.
Wade said he is surprised that so many black men still suffer from keloids and that so few professionals seem to be able to treat it.
"I was disappointed by the doctor," Wade said. "I thought he would be more sensitive and could deal with my problem because he is a black male. I was surprised. This is 1995, and no one is really aware of the problems black males have."