October is Black History Month, a time dedicated to celebrating the achievements and contributions of black people in the UK and around the world, and to educate all people on black history.
To celebrate this, we asked the wonderful Karen Olla, founder of independent lifestyle brand Ore Mi, to write a guest blog post all about her history with skin and body care, and how this lead to her to start her own brand.
I’ve always had dry skin since I was a baby, so growing up my mum always sought advice from the community of black women around her that she had chosen to be her ‘ride or dies’. My mum repeats to me ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ to this day, but I never quite understood what she meant until I grew older and discovered where the foundations of my beauty routine came from.
My mum would smother me in Palmers Cocoa Butter and use a mild version of black soap as a cleanser on me and my siblings' skin. This is actually one of the core memories I frequently reminisce about - I have even worked these nostalgic scents into my own formulations when creating for my lifestyle business (Oré mi). We smelt amazing and looked very hydrated, covered head to toe. However, as I grew older, friends and family suggested that products like Palmers Cocoa Butter & Vaseline made your hyperpigmentation worse, so she switched to using Shea Butter to moisturise us. At family gatherings we would laugh about black not cracking and talk about not needing SPF. If our ancestors in Africa didn’t need it then why do we, we would say.
Journey of Discovery
As I grew up I stuck with this skincare routine passed down by my family. But it got to a pivotal point at the end of my first year in college and my skin changed. The dryness got much worse and I had my first eczema breakout. I felt lost - I didn’t know what to do, my mum took me to the GP and I was prescribed the usual Aqueous cream and E45. Over time my eczema flare ups became more manageable as I worked out how to deal with life's stresses. However I was left with a lot of hyperpigmentation that I did not know what to do about. The village that I usually turned to for guidance did not understand how to help me, I also refused to use lightening creams, which a lot of the time in our community was the only remedy you would be given. I felt helpless.
When I got to university that’s when I first started wearing makeup and really looking into self-care. I decided to go on a journey of discovery and see if I could get my hyperpigmentation and eczema flare ups to a better level. When I started the journey I realised there was a serious lack of education on black skin, and no one looked like me in any of the commercials or images on beauty counters. I did not feel seen. In some way I think it made me feel like my natural skin was not beautiful unless it had makeup on it, as that’s how all the black models in makeup campaigns looked.
I remember going into a skincare store and asking about getting rid of dark spots and talking about finding a moisturiser that would really sink into my dry skin. But the sales assistant looked at me like they could not help me with my issues. I think it's because they had put a lot of black women in a box. A lot of us have been known to have oily skin so they could not understand why I was asking questions outside of their knowledge. Also they could not see the hyperpigmentation that existed on my face and could not tell me how to prevent it or even work out my complexion, so it was like talking to a brick wall.
I still felt very lost for a while, trialling using micellar water (that seemed like a miracle product for everything at one point) and different face masks. Then I got a marketing job in the beauty industry and was exposed to conversations with high level skincare experts. I remember the first hack I was ever given was mixing a little bit of a rejuvenating face oil into a moisturiser to give it that extra boost. It made such a difference to how deep the moisturiser seeped into my skin. I was so happy I was picking up little game changers and implementing them into my skincare routine. I was also introduced to why people have 7 steps or more in their skincare routine and was given so many beautiful products to trial.
However most people’s knowledge and most campaigns were centred around anti-aging products which just did not speak to me. Working in beauty had helped me feel less scared of trying new products that were not necessarily marketed at me. However there were still major gaps in my knowledge and it was frustrating.
Expanding My Village
With the rise of YouTube and Instagram came more education on black skin. Through reading blogs and following YouTube channels I stumbled upon information like the fact that all skin has melanin in it, but darker skin has more melanin producing cells, which over or under produce melanin when an irritation or an injury is caused. It made me feel seen and less unfortunate for being a black person with darker and lighter patches on my face. The rise of the internet really helped me to embrace my skin and it was also nice that I could try product recommendations from amazing women that looked like me doing their thing online. It was almost like 'my village' had grown from just being my family to being a worldwide village of amazing black women guiding me e.g. Jackie Aina & Patricia Bright.
The first two products that I added to my routine were game changers - I tried Ren Clean Skincare dark spot cream and started using La Roche Posay SPF 50, a recommendation by Melissa’s Wardrobe. After seeing how healthy my skin felt day to day I reached out to my mum and educated her on how much we need SPF to prevent anti-aging. I remember a campaign that Jordan Dunn did talking about why we need SPF as black people and I remember sending it to her and it convinced her to reconsider all the old wives tales we had been told growing up. After telling her about my 7 step skincare routine (a milky cleanser, toner, serum, moisturiser, eye cream, face oil and sunscreen), I convinced her to add a toner, anti ageing serum and sunscreen to her routine too. As black does crack if you don’t take care of it and I think she started to realise that as she got older.
Progression = Change
As years have passed I’ve found that my skin has kept evolving. So when I started Oré mi I was excited at the opportunity of going on a natural skincare journey and also sharing some of my village's beauty secrets. Formulating our Ara & Irun moisturiser was so rewarding. It felt amazing to combine natural ingredients that would help prevent hyperpigmentation and really moisturise your skin (e.g. Shea butter, Avocado oil, Jojoba oil etc). I wanted to produce something nostalgic but improved, that the younger me would have been looking to buy during her skincare journey of discovery. It has also been amazing to see the launch of platforms such as Rich Skxn which allow you to buy products tailored to darker skin tones and learn how to care for your skin at the same time.
Also just like Oré mi, it has been nice to see other brands popping up that are trying to help the black community, love their skin & culture e.g. Topicals, Epara, Eadem, Klur & Hanahana beauty. It’s refreshing to see that black people now have more education around our own skin and feel seen in the media. We still have a long way to go especially when it comes to representation in stores. But I always remind myself that it is a journey not a race. Focus on the positive when it comes to your skin and the skincare industry and slowly but surely if we keep evoking change by sharing our wants and needs via social media the rest will fall into place.