The Naked Truth
How the names of 6,816 complexion products can reveal bias in beauty
First Place. Lead Role. Number One. When things are arranged in a sequence, we have a mild obsession with being the “first.” You want the blue ribbon. To be on the first page of search results. To have your story above the fold. Afterall, we prioritize the things that come first.
When beauty brands label their foundation shades with sequential numbers, they are implicitly prioritizing those at the beginning of the sequence. These products become more accessible to customers because they are often higher on store shelves and are not hidden behind the “See More” button on websites..
We found 130 products on Sephora’s and Ulta’s websites that use a sequential number system to label their shades. Of those, 97% put their lighter shades, and thus the customers that use those shades, first. Here are a few examples:
Roughly 40% of beauty brands use a sequential numbering system to organize their foundation shades. Yet only 4 out of those 130 products ordered their shades from dark to light.
On the surface, consistently numbering the lightest shades first might appear trivial and seemingly unintentional. However, when coupled with the numerous microaggressions marginalized groups face, it becomes part of a larger conversation around how deeper shades, and the folks who wear them, are treated by the beauty industry at large.
While number-based labeling leads to prioritization of the shades at the beginning of the sequence, the numbers themselves act as straightforward labels. In US culture, apart from notable exceptions such as 13 or 666, most numbers don’t have additional connotations.
Words, on the other hand, are often intertwined with both personal and societal connotations. 82% of products, including some that also use a sequential numbering system, name their shades with words or phrases, many of which have wildly different associations.
A 2020 study investigating the connotations of foundation shade names in 20 products found that dark shades were largely named after “the least valuable substances and objects'' while lighter shades were labeled after “decorative, valuable, and precious objects.” Our analysis revealed similar results, and the more you study the data, the more patterns of microaggressions specifically targeting Black and Brown consumers begin to materialize.
Nude & Natural
As a siloed event, there is absolutely nothing wrong with describing the color of a foundation shade as “nude” or “natural”. After all, a foundation is meant to mimic the color of your skin. But problems can arise if these words aren’t used to name shades consistently across the color spectrum.
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110 shades with "nude" in the name
Source: The Pudding
We identified 110 shades from 73 products that contained the word “nude” in the name.
If we sort the shades from dark to light, we can start to get a sense of what types of shades are considered “nude.”
The majority of shades named “nude” are clustered in the light to middle end of the shade spectrum.
You may be wondering if this skew towards lighter shades is due to shade availability. There are fewer dark shades available in general, so naturally, there would be fewer called nude. Let’s see if that’s the case. Instead of looking at individual colors, let’s momentarily consider the overall shape these swatches create when they are arranged from dark to light.
Now, let’s overlay that with what we expect the shape of these swatches to look like, if those 110 shades were distributed in the same way as all 5,307 swatches with word names in our dataset. If this inconsistent naming were just a product of shade availability, we would expect to see fewer mid-range shades named “nude” and many more dark “nude” shades. This isn’t just an issue of availability but one of inconsistent naming schemes.
Of the handful of darker shades with “nude” in their name, many can be attributed to a single brand, NudeStix, which labels every shade in its Tinted Cover Foundation product “nude” (The word “nude” is paired with a sequential numbering system to distinguish between shades.)
The darkest shade that contains “nude” in its name isn’t simply called “nude”. It’s “nude mocha.” And while there are other shades with modifiers in their names (like “warm nude” or “nude beige”), there are only 2 other shades with food modifiers: “nude vanilla” and “nude bisque.”
We see the same naming trends in shades called “natural.” Once again, most of the shades in this group are light, with one of the darkest shades paired with a food modifier. Natural toffee is the only “natural” shade paired with a food name.
The persistent association of the words “nude” and “natural” with light complexions leaves us with unanswered questions that hint at an implicit bias and anti-blackness. Are people with darker complexions “unnatural?” Why aren’t the skintones of dark skinned people considered nude, too?
“Nude” and its covertly racist history, has had a long standing effect on the beauty industry and beyond. It wasn’t until 2015 that Webster’s Dictionary removed the phrase “having the color of a white person’s skin” from it’s official definition of the word nude. This change only happened after Ithaca College sophomore Luis Torres’ campaign entitled “Nude Awakening” went viral. But even as the official dictionary definitions have become more inclusive, other industries have been slow to adapt.
Brown shades of nude undergarments didn’t become mainstream until brands like Nubian Skin started creating various shades of their bras and underwear for women of color. In 2017, Mented Cosmetics helped redefine the beauty industry’s light-colored nude lipstick standard and launched one of the first inclusive shade ranges that complimented all complexions. It took the Black uprisings triggered by the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, for Band Aid to finally expand their long standing, pale pink bandage offering, in an attempt to show solidarity with the Black community.
These anecdotes reveal a recurring pattern of willful ignorance. Instead of powerful entities and frequent perpetrators of implicit harm being proactive and taking accountability, minoritized groups are forced to fight for inclusion and equity, and they often end up creating change that benefits us all.
Many of these underlying biases are undoubtedly tied to much larger structural issues, like the lack of diversity within beauty industry innovation. There is a reason why beauty services like laser hair removal are introduced to the market without first considering how they will work on deeper complexions. Or why the latest augmented reality lipstick try-on tool fails to accurately represent the true hue of a product on someone with brown skin.
It's because those with darker complexions are often considered an afterthought. It has been painfully evident in the numerous times brands have launched a foundation consisting of primarily light shades, only to relaunch with the deeper shades through an “expansion” months after. Or how many brick and mortar stores don’t stock the full range of shades, leaving the darkest shades only available online.
Strangely enough, another trend emerged as beauty brands added deeper products to their collections. What deep foundation shade names lack in “natural” descriptors, they make up for in food and drink adjectives.
Food & Drink
The Black community’s tie to colorism is heavily influenced by a sordid history of slavery and imperialism. Consequently, there has been a constant effort to delineate between who should be considered “light skinned” or “dark skinned.” For example, the infamous brown paper bag test was used to exclude women of deeper complexions out of historically Black colleges for decades.
Through the years, numerous labels emerged due to this classification, often comparing a person’s complexion to an inanimate object. For those with lighter skin, the popularity of terms like “yellow bone” began to rise. For those with deeper skin, compliments often included nicknames involving delicious treats.
“Chocolate Drop.” “Hot Cocoa.” “Mocha Queen.”
The beauty industry soon followed suit - the naming of darker shades of foundation after a food or drink is a prevalent standard.
278 shades with drink items in the name
Source: The Pudding
Although being compared to your favorite delicious delight is not the worst thing in the world, the sheer volume of “mocha,” “latte,” and “espresso” foundations sheds light on a general lack of creativity when it comes to the naming of brown, dark, or black makeup items.
1024 shades with food items in the name
Source: The Pudding
Like with shades named “nude” or “natural,” there’s nothing inherently wrong with naming shades after foods or drinks. And in some cases, like HUDA Beauty’s #FauxFilter lines, all shades are named after foods or drinks, from the darkest “chocolate truffle,” to the midrange “peanut butter cup,” to the lightest “angel food” and all the shades in between. But, typically, product lines don’t use a consistent naming scheme and end up naming their darker shades after foods and drinks. Alternatively, their lighter shades are named after gems, plants, or a much wider variety of miscellaneous words.
This, of course, raises the question why food and drink names like “espresso”, “mocha”, and “chocolate” might be so overused as descriptors for deep skin tones. This naming system could come down to prejudice in the way the English language frames darkness or blackness as being equated with negative outcomes. Take phrases like “going to the dark side” or “blacklisting” someone as an example. Products like coffee and chocolate are among the rare exceptions of dark-colored items with a generally positive association, and are even considered “luxury” products.
Even so, some have become wary of the association. Repeatedly being referred to as a food can come across as fetishizing or dehumanizing. And all of this can be compounded when we consider that although chocolate and coffee may be considered “luxury” products, they are also two products intertwined with historic and modern-day slavery.
When we take a step back and look at all the possible foundation shade names, a few trends start to emerge. The hue of our complexions have been compared to budding plants, popular vacation destinations, and lots more. You might be surprised to find that in the “compliment” category, which includes words like “perfect” or “classic,” 15 brands include compliment words in their naming, but only 2 - ZOEVA and BLK/OPL - use these words for the deepest shades. This another nod to the hints of anti-blackness that run through the beauty industry. You might also find it interesting that the “textile” category, which includes words like “linen” and “cashmere,” is even a category at all. Take a look at the data below and explore the different ways the beauty industry names different foundation shades.
Explore all 5307 shades
Source: The Pudding
While the beauty industry is meant to be fun, relaxing, and glamorous in nature, it cannot escape the perils of discrimination we observe at a larger scale in our society. The insidiousness of anti-black microaggressions allow for casual disregard and denial, but as the data shows, those small instances of bias can quite quickly add up.
Fortunately, in the last 6 months, we have seen a number of positive changes when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the beauty industry. However, it is clear we still have a long way to go in order to truly make everyone feel welcome. As we continue to celebrate living in our truth as our most authentic selves, we must also push to learn the truths of others and frequently interrogate any covert bias we may have ourselves.
All data were collected from the US versions of Sephora and Ulta’s websites on January 11 and January 18, 2021, respectively, using Microsoft Playwright. Shades that were transparent or untinted were removed. Duplicate products were removed, resulting in a total of 6,816 swatches from 107 brands and 328 products.
Shade names were determined by scraping the alt text of the swatch images on each product page and using RegEx to extract the name from the description listed. An estimated 10% of names had to be manually extracted from the alt text. Of these, products could use a number-based system, a word-based system, or a combination for naming their shades. Hex values and lightness were determined from the featured swatches for each shade on the website for the product using the jpeg, magick, and imager packages in R.
Categories were manually assigned and thus are subject to interpretation. Some words that often have multiple meanings (e.g., “tan” can be referring to a color or can be shorthand for a “suntan”, “olive” can be a food or a color etc.) are grouped in multiple categories and thus may appear more than once. Some words may be categorized differently based on the context of the entire product line. While most lines don’t seem to have a consistent naming scheme, some provide context. Estée Lauder has a shade called “dawn” and another called “dusk”, presumably referring to the time of day and thus both were categorized “miscellaneous”. EXA also has a shade called “dawn”, but the entire line of products contains the names of people, so in this context “dawn” is presumably referring to a name as opposed to the time of day and is categorized as “name”. If you see a glaring error on our part, feel free to let us know at email@example.com.