Sabrina Elba Is Harnessing The Ancestors' Greatest Tools To Upgrade Our Skin Care

“Most times when people say they've tested [products] on a diverse group of people, they actually haven’t,” says Sabrina Elba.
“Most times when people say they've tested [products] on a diverse group of people, they actually haven’t,” says Sabrina Elba. Photo Courtesy of Studio Beauty

It’seasyto tell when a makeup line isn’t inclusive. One glance at the shade range lets you know whom the brand is prioritizing. Skin care, though, is a little sneakier. If you’re looking for, say, a dark spot treatment at Sephora, many of the products appear to be made for everyone, but the labels don’t always tell the full story.

Sabrina Elba, who launched the skin care line S’Able Labs with her husband, Idris, discovered this dirty little secret while developing her products. “Most times when people say they’ve tested on a diverse group of people, they actually haven’t,” says Elba, a model and activist. “When we reached out to third-party groups to do testing for us, the companies came back saying they had a diverse group. But when we asked for pictures, their idea of diverse wasn’t anywhere near ours.”

The leaders at S’Able Labs insisted on testing an equal number of people in all six categories on the Fitzpatrick scale, a commonly used skin type classification system based on the amount of melanin in the skin — and Elba tells us that this isn’t the norm.

“I’m worried that people trust companies to test [on all skin tones], but they’re not,” she says. “A really quick way to see that is to go try an invisible sunscreen and then tell me if it was invisible for your skin type.” As a dark-skinned woman and longtime beauty writer, I don’t have to accept the challenge to know she’s right.

Elba, who is now a trained aesthetician as well as a beauty founder, aims to lead by example. S’Able Labs, which officially launched in 2022, is focused on treating hyperpigmentation, an area where she says “brands have massively missed the mark.”

Her own past skin struggles were an eye-opener, as she dealt with the disappointment of products that didn’t work or made her skin even worse.

“I fell into a cycle of hyperpigmentation when I got adult acne,” she tells me. “I was equipped with knowledge, and I also had money to spend on expensive products. But I found myself wondering, ‘Why is my spot still there after a year? Why does my skin barrier feel so damaged?’”

Elba felt that hyperpigmentation has been viewed as an issue that only affects a small demographic, so brands haven’t been doing enough development and research around it. She believed there had to be a way to treat the problem without creating more problems.

And because the ancestors never fail us, her team sought out ingredients from East, West and South Africa that have been used historically to inhibit the melanin production that causes hyperpigmentation. These include qasil (a nod to Elba’s Somalian roots) and rooibos, as well as antioxidants like okra, black seed and baobab. The formulas avoid ingredients that are known to be potentially irritating or drying, or known to trigger inflammation, which can cause skin discoloration.

Elba’s mission isn’t just about helping dark-skinned folks achieve complexion perfection. She’s also trying to get an important message out to shoppers and the industry: Melanin-inclusive skin care products benefit everyone. It’s a simple concept, but the inquiries Elba receives prove that it’s not easy for everyone to grasp.

“The most common question I get is, ‘I’m not Black ― can I use your line on my skin?’” she says.

The answer is a resounding yes. But in a world where segregation in the beauty aisle, at the department store counter and in advertising has long been the norm, it’s going to take time for her message — that centering darker skin tones does not mean excluding lighter ones — to kick in.

A broader shift toward inclusive skin care also requires buy-in from mainstream brands and retailers. And Elba hopes more brands will have a light bulb moment soon.

“I think inclusive skin care should be the standard. If in five years, you haven’t figured out that [tweaking your products] will give you a bigger catch group, then I don’t understand the long game for these brands,” she says. “There are Black dollars there and you’re missing out.”

Her advice and her vision, like her skin, couldn’t be any clearer.