11 Black Women Who Changed the Beauty Industry for the Better
“The nicest things happen to girls with light, bright complexions!” reads the headline of a vintage advertisement for bleaching cream, one of many that frequented beauty magazines and their precious ad space. The problem? “The nicest things” didn’t happen when formulas like these were applied—at least, not for everyone. Instead, Black complexions felt severe burning and irritation. Some even went blind after being promised that the bleaching formulas were eye-safe.
You may assume this is an ancient piece of history, but similar stories have been occurring even during the present day. Hydroquinone, a skin-lightening agent that has adverse effects on darker skin tones, was only recently banned by the US last year.While the beauty industry has made major strides as of late, none of it could’ve been done without the Black women who spearheaded them. We spotlight just a few (trust us, there are many, many more) below.
ANNIE MINERVA TURNBO MALONE
While Annie missed a lot of school as a child due to illness, her aptitude for chemistry (coupled with all that extra time home) led her to develop The Wonderful Hair Grower, a formula that could straighten Black hair without damaging it. As a Black woman, she was denied the typical distribution opportunities other brands had and resorted to knocking on doors to sell her products. Her strategy worked, however, and soon enough this child of two former slaves became one of America’s first Black female millionaires. She would also go on to found Poro College, the first US educational institution to exclusively teach Black cosmetology.
Image source: Missouri Encyclopedia
MADAM C.J. WALKER (SARAH BREEDLOVE)
Born on the plantation where her parents were previously enslaved, Sarah Breedlove was inspired to create her own products after dealing with significant scalp irritation and hair loss. (In fact, she tried Annie Malone’s hair products and later joined her sales team). After changing her name to Madam C.J. Walker, she used a mere $1.25 to start her own hair care system—including an ointment, hot comb, and scalp massage—that would soon reap over $500,000 in sales. Soon enough, she joined Annie as another one of the first Black female millionaires in the US and, similar to her predecessor, would frequently donate to organizations that supported the Black community, such as the NAACP.
Image source: Biography.com
Iman was first discovered by a photographer while studying political science in Kenya. Just one year later she was gracing the covers of Vogue, skyrocketing her straight to supermodel status. Because there weren’t many makeup shades available to her during modeling (she would have to mix her own foundation for makeup artists to apply on her), she eventually decided to make her own in 1994, called Iman Cosmetics, one of the first makeup lines tailored to the BIPOC community. Its foundation touts over 14 shades (which you can easily match to your skin tone using the website’s Find Your Shade tool).
As if running a company wasn’t enough, UOMA Beauty founder Sharon Chuter also spearheaded the movement-turned-nonprofit Pull Up For Change. Frustrated by the beauty industry’s lack of accountability when it came to diversity in the workplace, Sharon took to Instagram in 2020 and asked beauty brands to #pulluporshutup by publishing the number of Black employees and leaders in their organization. Pull Up For Change has left a lasting legacy beyond its virality, continuing to fight for more racial equity and Black representation in the beauty space and beyond.
Rose Morgan was sick of beauty standards that deemed kinky hair as “bad”, propelling her to start the Rose Meta House of Beauty, the largest African American beauty parlor in the world. She later expanded into cosmetics and fashion, even becoming a founder of the Freedom National Bank, a Black-owned bank in Harlem, New York.
Image source: New York Times
Coined “the most influential makeup artist in the world”, Pat McGrath pursued a career in beauty despite zero formal training in the business—just a combination of at-home experimentation and inspiration from her mother. Her preference for hands over brushes and the use of bold, experimental beauty looks can be seen across runways, magazines, and more. In 2016, she launched her own beauty brand, Pat McGrath Labs, and in 2019, was listed as one of Time’s 100 most influential people.
Image source: PatMcGrath.com
The woman behind KNC Beauty (and those adorable eye masks and lip balms) is also responsible for KNC Beauty School, a free online program that helps support BIPOC female entrepreneurs. Kristin developed these tuition-free courses, covering topics like product development and finance, to help other Black-owned beauty businesses succeed in the space. Participants are also eligible to win a $10,000 grant to help launch and/or grow their brand.
Balanda personally understands the frustration of finding makeup shades that match her complexion, a struggle that led her to land a job as L'oreal's Women of Color Lab Manager (and eventually, as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People). Combining her love of makeup and science, this chemist conducts on-the-ground research, measuring various skin tones across the country to help provide more inclusive shade options.
A few years after becoming the first African American graduate of the A.B. Molar Beauty School and opening her own salon, Marjorie realized there must be a better way for African American women to fix their hair, considering the current process of using hot curling irons was both time-consuming and uncomfortable. After being inspired by making pot roast (seriously) she invented and patented her Permanent Waving Machine—and a scalp protector to go along with it—that would later be used by salons.
Image source: Chicago Public Library
Lisa started mixing butters and oils in her Brooklyn kitchen as a hobby, but soon enough, family and friends were encouraging her to sell her formulas (including body moisturizers that relieved her perpetual dry skin) at the local flea market. She named her company Carol’s Daughter, inspired by her mother’s support and encouragement, and launched her initial hobby into a full-blown business. While Lisa no longer runs Carol’s Daughter, it’s one of the first African American-owned lines with its own flagship store.
Meet the youngest African-American to launch a product line at Sephora, Nancy Twine. Which shouldn’t be surprising, given that she started making her own at-home formulas when she was just five years old. In 2013, she founded Briogeo Hair Care, which touts natural, performance-driven products that work for all hair textures.