One week after graduating from UNC Charlotte, Rachel Roff enrolled in the National Aesthetics Institute where she was disappointed to find a lack of diversity among teachers, fellow students and models.
“I wanted the ability to help my friends of all different races, but it was a very caucasian industry,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of exposure to different skin types.”
So Roff, who is white, would bring her friends to class to practice on them.
After getting licensed, she landed her first skincare job with a chiropractor who had recently purchased a laser safe for use on all skin tones. At the time in 2004, it was pretty rare technology. Roff used it to successfully treat bikini line ingrown hairs but knew from complaints among her black male friends that the technology could benefit another demographic.
“What about African-American men who have ingrown hairs on their faces?” she wondered.
Without a marketing budget, Roff started handing out flyers in local barbershops. She hustled, building relationships and establishing a client base before convincing her boss to let her buy an ad spot on a local R&B radio station.
“I don’t care if I’m white,” she said. “I don’t care if I sound crazy. I know this will do well.”
It was the start of something huge.
Fast forward to today and Roff’s Charlotte-based medspa, Urban Skin Solutions (which she opened in 2006), and skincare line, Urban Skin Rx, are projected to rake in $10 million in revenue in 2018. And her products — adored by celebrities like Ayesha Curry, Remy Ma and Eva Marcille — hit Target shelves nationwide back in January.
The focus has shifted from men in barbershops to a mostly female consumer base but the catalyst — inclusive skincare for melanin-rich skin tones — remains the same.
It’s a guiding principle Roff used to build a company that would be reflective of the diversity not only of her own personal social circle but of the American population at large.
She equates the lack of representation for darker skin tones in the beauty industry to a form of racism and beyond that says it’s also just bad business.
“The African-American consumer is a huge contributor to the beauty industry,” she said, “and the fact they’ve been ignored is not only an injustice but is stupid.”
According to Nielsen, black consumers control $1.2 trillion in buying power annually and, despite making up just 14% of the U.S. population “have an outsized influence over spending on essential items such as personal soap and bath needs, hygiene products and men’s toiletries.”
Roff says things have gotten a lot better in the industry over the last decade, which means larger companies are finally catching up, but she’s confident in what she’s created.
“The advantage I have is the fact it’s always been who we are versus something we’re now trying to become,” she said. “Who we are resonates with clients as authentic and genuine. That’s alway going to give my small little company an advantage.”
Roff’s products are designed to address common skin complaints for people of color — specifically hyperpigmentation.
“Darker skin suffers from a lot of concerns that all skin suffers from — acne, oily skin, large pores,” she said. “But the main complaint always goes back to hyperpigmentation.”
Their bestselling 3-in-1 Even Tone Cleansing Bar, a unique solid soap in a jar that functions as a cleanser, mask and exfoliator, is tough to keep in stock. “We can’t make enough of it,” Roff said.
Earlier this year, Urban Skin Rx products rolled out to Target stores across the country.
“It was extraordinarily surreal,” Roff said. “There are a lot of amazing products out there and not everyone gets to make it to that next level. I never take it for granted and I use that fear of failure as constant motivation.”
The 36-year-old single mom had a long-running joke that the first time she saw her products in a major national store, she would lay down in the aisle. After the Target deal, she and her daughter (who was 5 at the time) made a trip to the Northlake Mall location and Roff made good on her promise.
“As an entrepreneur I’ve struck out beyond belief,” she said. “I’m dealing with two entirely different companies and I’m a single mom. Those moments when you’re like, oh my god, all that hard work and sacrifice and strife resulted in something, it’s like becoming a movie star.”
On top of the Urban Skin Rx product line, Roff is also managing her medspa, Urban Skin Solutions, which expanded into a larger facility in north Charlotte earlier this year.
“We’re a hidden gem,” she said. “People don’t know how many celebrities travel to my medspa for treatment.”
Roff says the medspa sees about 30% white clients but, as with the skincare line, it uniquely caters to darker skin tones.
Roff says not everyone has been receptive to learning there’s a white woman behind a company dubbed “The Melanin Experts,” but she says her intent is genuine.
“You can be really passionate about helping something you can’t personally experience,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Roff’s businesses are expected to bring in $5 million in revenue in 2018. The correct number is $10 million.