Ethnic skin types: are there differences in skin structure and function?

Int J Cosmet Sci. 2006 Apr;28(2):79-93. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00302.x.


People of skin of colour comprise the majority of the world's population and Asian subjects comprise more than half of the total population of the earth. Even so, the literature on the characteristics of the subjects with skin of colour is limited. Several groups over the past decades have attempted to decipher the underlying differences in skin structure and function in different ethnic skin types. However, most of these studies have been of small scale and in some studies interindividual differences in skin quality overwhelm any racial differences. There has been a recent call for more studies to address genetic together with phenotypic differences among different racial groups and in this respect several large-scale studies have been conducted recently. The most obvious ethnic skin difference relates to skin colour which is dominated by the presence of melanin. The photoprotection derived from this polymer influences the rate of the skin aging changes between the different racial groups. However, all racial groups are eventually subjected to the photoaging process. Generally Caucasians have an earlier onset and greater skin wrinkling and sagging signs than other skin types and in general increased pigmentary problems are seen in skin of colour although one large study reported that East Asians living in the U.S.A. had the least pigment spots. Induction of a hyperpigmentary response is thought to be through signaling by the protease-activated receptor-2 which together with its activating protease is increased in the epidermis of subjects with skin of colour. Changes in skin biophysical properties with age demonstrate that the more darkly pigmented subjects retaining younger skin properties compared with the more lightly pigmented groups. However, despite having a more compact stratum corneum (SC) there are conflicting reports on barrier function in these subjects. Nevertheless, upon a chemical or mechanical challenge the SC barrier function is reported to be stronger in subjects with darker skin despite having the reported lowest ceramide levels. One has to remember that barrier function relates to the total architecture of the SC and not just its lipid levels. Asian skin is reported to possess a similar basal transepidermal water loss (TEWL) to Caucasian skin and similar ceramide levels but upon mechanical challenge it has the weakest barrier function. Differences in intercellular cohesion are obviously apparent. In contrast reduced SC natural moisturizing factor levels have been reported compared with Caucasian and African American skin. These differences will contribute to differences in desquamation but few data are available. One recent study has shown reduced epidermal Cathepsin L2 levels in darker skin types which if also occurs in the SC could contribute to the known skin ashing problems these subjects experience. In very general terms as the desquamatory enzymes are extruded with the lamellar granules subjects with lowered SC lipid levels are expected to have lowered desquamatory enzyme levels. Increased pores size, sebum secretion and skin surface microflora occur in Negroid subjects. Equally increased mast cell granule size occurs in these subjects. The frequency of skin sensitivity is quite similar across different racial groups but the stimuli for its induction shows subtle differences. Nevertheless, several studies indicate that Asian skin maybe more sensitive to exogenous chemicals probably due to a thinner SC and higher eccrine gland density. In conclusion, we know more of the biophysical and somatosensory characteristics of ethnic skin types but clearly, there is still more to learn and especially about the inherent underlying biological differences in ethnic skin types.