Typically, I don't believe the hype that comes with Instagram-famous fashion and beauty products. Flat tummy teas? I call bullshit. Backless, strapless bras that stay up all night on double Ds? I don't think so. By now, I've become so desensitized to #spon content that I just scroll right past it without taking a second to double-check... or double-tap, for that manner.
Which is exactly why I tried my damndest to ignore Urban Skin Rx for at least two months, even though my favorite American Idol winner, Fantasia, consistently sang the skin-care line's praises. Then I saw it on Teyana Taylor's Instagram. And Eva Marcille's. And a handful of my favorite style bloggers' pages, too. And pretty soon, I couldn't make it three Instagram scrolls without someone — predominantly Black women — talking about how great the line was.
So, when Urban Skin Rx reached out for a meeting with me, I decided to finally give it a chance. Because the brand is geared towards darker skin tones (it even claims to be the "melanin experts" in ads) and boasts a huge celebrity roster of women of color, I was excited to connect with the owner Rachel Roff — who, I assumed based on her products and clientele and even the name of her line, was, well, Black. Then she showed up in the Refinery29 lobby, and was... a young, bubbly, Jewish woman from California. Wait, what?
I'm not saying that I was skeptical about Roff's expertise on treating skin that looks like mine. I was more curious about her intentions. What was her connection to my culture? Or is she just in it for the cash?
"I love answering questions about my expertise or why I’m doing this," Roff told me. "I don’t think that there’s anything wrong when a Black woman goes to a white hairdresser and asks — 'Do you do a lot of textures like mine?' There are so many men out there who are gynecologists. There are breast cancer specialists who’ve never had breast cancer. It’s all about somebody’s expertise and experience. People get drawn to different things for different reasons."
Roff's reason is personal. The California native, who grew up being bullied about her skin and weight, decided she wanted to open up a medical spa while she was still in high school. She went to UNC Charlotte to oblige her parents, but then headed to the National Aesthetics Institute of Charlotte to follow her real dream. While there, she came to realize that there was something major missing in her curriculum.
"The south was still segregated and a predominately Caucasian industry in terms of aesthetics 14 years ago," Roff explains. "Mainly, the students that were Caucasian were practicing on each other. Teachers were Caucasian, too. No one was taking darker skin concerns and conditions into consideration."
It's an issue that sadly, extends to most schools. A February 2017 study by JAMA Dermatology found that over the course of five years, nearly 75% of all participants in dermatology clinical trials (which focused on acne, vitiligo, psoriasis, and alopecia areata) were white. Roff wanted change that statistic. While working at a medical spa in her first job out of school, she tested a resurfacing laser treatment on some of her friends with dark skin and was shocked by the major differences in before-and-after pictures. "I thought to myself, 'This is actually something I'd love to do,'" she says.
In 2006, she opened Urban Skin Solutions, Roff's medical spa, which provides skin and body services (including vagina fillers) to a large clientele, including mostly Black women. Four or five years into the business, she decided to start creating her own products, despite the fact that she isn't a cosmetic chemist or a dermatologist. That's when Urban Skin Rx was born. The line's main focus? Addressing hyperpigmentation. "It's the primary concern of darker skin tones, but it affects all skin tones, too," Roff says. "I've seen 30,000 clients over the last 14 years, and over that course of time, I've taken in their main concerns and hyperpigmentation is one of them. The ingredients that are in my products address uneven skin tones for everyone."
But unlike some sketchy Instagram products, this line really does check out, according to Ron Robinson, a seasoned cosmetic chemist who's developed formulas for Revlon, Lancôme, and Clinique. "They seem to use ingredients that many other brands do," Robinson, who runs Beauty Stat, says. Their Even Tone Night Cream contains hydroquinone and kojic acid, both proven ingredients for brightening dark spots and improving hyperpigmentation. Retinol, which is also in the cream, stimulates cell turn over, evens tone, and softens wrinkles.
"My question for them is this," Robinson says. "Do they or did they test their products on women of color?"
The answer is a resounding yes. At Urban Skin Solutions, Roff has a 22-person staff of all ethnicities — but mostly Black. "When we get samples, they use the products," she says. "That’s how we see what works and what doesn’t work, rathe than participating in some 50 patient case study [of predominantly white women]."
This has been Roff's approach since her school days, according to Reese B., a stylist who met Roff 10 years ago when they were both beauty students. "I've never had trouble trusting her judgment when it came to my skin," she says. "But you did hear some criticism in the beginning, especially in Charlotte. 'You're white, and you're doing this Black thing. Urban Skin? What the hell?' This was a market that we needed, though, and she ran with it. Plus, the products aren't just good for Black skin. Everybody can use them."
Word quickly spread through friends and eventually the product landed in the right hands. "Fantasia and Makeup By Shayla started posting pictures of my products on Instagram, and people would call," Roff says. "They couldn’t come to the spa, but wanted to order them online. We put together a website and everything just grew from there."
Ever since my meeting with Roff, I've been using the Clarifying Gly/Sal Pads which have 2 percent salicylic acid, and the Even Tone Cleansing Bar, which has kojic acid and azelaic acid. Both products claim to reduce the look of dark spots and discoloration... and they both really do live up to the hype. Hey, blast me for drinking the Kool-Aid and I'd gladly raise my glass.
But in all seriousness, my skin really has evened out in just a few months, and these days I don't even have to wear my usual tinted moisturizer or foundation — just a touch of concealer over some lingering blemishes. I'm not saying that these two products are a cure-all; I still struggle with dark spots from ingrown hairs on my face, as well as the occasional hormonal breakouts on my cheeks and chin. But for the most part, I'm really into the skin I'm in these days.
And, Reese B. is right about the line being for everyone. Alix Tunell, Refinery29 senior beauty editor (who has fair skin), is into USRX, too. "After two months, I just finished the bottle of Even Tone Night Treatment and desperately need a refill," she says. "I used it between my brows, where I've picked so much that it's led to scarring and on discoloration on my bikini line. In both places, I've noticed significant fading." She likes the potent Gly/Sal pads, too — are you noticing a trend, here? — and praises them for never drying her out, even when used daily.
So what about the naysayers who still don't buy what Roff is pushing — like me, just a few months ago? "With anything, there’s going to be people that support you and people that won’t," she says. "The people who don’t just give me more motivation to make my proof in the pudding." Judging from her growing list of fans on my Instagram feed, it's safe to say that approach is working.