As part of the U-M Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, the Dermatology Department at the University of Michigan Health System hosted Dr. Alexander Alexis, who discussed the importance of recognizing how dermatological conditions affect various skin colors in different ways, on Thursday.
Alexis, director of the Skin of Color Center at Mount Sinai Health Center, spoke to doctors and students about the United States’ diverse population and each patient’s unique dermatological needs. In his lecture, Alexis discussed the need to develop treatment for individual patients rather than generalizing the techniques used to treat certain skin conditions.
The lecture enumerated the various terms that are used to differentiate between skin colors, including words often used like ethnic skin, skin of color, melano competent vs. melano compromised. However, Alexis said there isn’t one good term for differentiations.
“We don’t have a good name because skin of color is a misnomer — all skin has color,” he said.
Dr. Charles Boyd, a facial plastic surgeon who attended the event, said because of the growing numbers of people who identify as having non-white skin, this area of study holds a particular importance.
“I think it’s a very interesting area,” he said. “Being a former U-M faculty professor, it’s an area we don’t often emphasize among the residents and in other training areas. It doesn’t get the resources that it should and if you look at the demographics of this country, we certainly need to be spending more time understanding skin of color.”
According to December 2012 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, by the year 2060, approximately 57 percent of the population will describe itself as one the non-white ethnic groups. Already, there is a majority of people globally who have darkly pigmented skin.
Among the most common reasons for people with skin of color to see a dermatologist are dyschromias, which are disturbances in pigmentation. Dr. Alexis said how darker pigmentations might make a person more susceptible to conditions like hyperpigmentation, keloids, alopecia, lupus and many others. However, he also noted that increased levels of melanin among these individuals, responsible for determining skin and hair colour, in these people actually serve as protection against photoaging, skin damage done by UV rays, and skin cancer in some cases because they provide a natural UV shield.
LSA freshman Ari Spellman, a member of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, attended the event in hopes of learning more about dermatology.
“I have really little experience with medicine,” Spellman said. “I thought it was very interesting to hear the basics of dermatology and about the differences in dermatological issues between skin of color and skin of lighter pigmentation.”
These differences between ski of color and skin of lighter pignentation can also be amplified by cultural variances in skin care, grooming, perceptions of beauty and alternative medicine practices, according to Alexis. He highlighted differing treatment methods that are used to combat various skin ailments as examples of this, each of which possess the potential to benefit a patient though some risks and side effects could also exist.
Alexis said his mother is his inspiration to study dermatology and the nuances of treatment based on skin color.
“My mother was probably the first Black dermatologist in Toronto,” Alexis said. “I was inspired by a number of prominent African American physicians who I had the good fortune to meet.”