Highsnobiety

I’ll never forget my first time getting shade-matched, a milestone for beauty enthusiasts like myself. I went to my local Sephora where a sales rep scanned my skin using a special camera that assigned me a shade ID – a Pantone-esque string of letters and numbers – and plugged it into a program that spit out fitting products. Expecting to receive a range of options to choose from, I was given a single foundation which, begrudgingly, I spent upwards of $40 on (for my high school self, this was a lot to spend on makeup).

The shade was too yellow, but what other options did I have? Eventually, I learned that I wasn’t the only one stuck with an ill-fitting foundation. After consulting with friends and online boards like MakeupAlley, a shared complaint emerged: The vast majority of foundations and concealers are either too yellow or too pink for Asian skin tones, which fall on a wide spectrum of hue, depth, and undertone.

As I was beginning to accept the fact that shopping for foundation and concealer would always be a struggle, Yu-Chen Shih was developing a solution for other frustrated, Asian makeup-wearers. Shih, a media planner at the time, was assigned to work on the account of a well-known Japanese beauty conglomerate. “As an Asian woman, I was super excited to work on the account,” she recalls. Shih – who is half-Malaysian and half-Taiwanese – had always struggled to find a foundation that worked for her skin tone and hoped the company would consider her feedback on its products. “Let me tell you my difficulties: ‘Why don't you make products for this type of skin? Why don't you make foundation shades for those of us who aren't super fair?’ But they are a very old company with traditions… I wasn't able to get my point across. However, that was when I got inspired to create something for people like me.”

Shih began developing a range of foundation shades to fill the gap that many Asian customers grapple with. Quickly, she learned why such a massive gap exists: Brands often work off of the same, limited playbook when creating their ranges.

“I had this whole idea in my mind where I'm like, ‘Okay, I'm going to do focus groups and I'm going to collect skin tones, and I'm going to develop shades based on real people,’” Shih says. “But when I tried to explain what I wanted to do to the chemist, I was told, ‘Nobody does that here.’ She handed me a Pantone skin color book and said, ‘Pick however many you want. Or go to Sephora and pick the top-selling shades and we will make a range for you. This is how the big companies do it.’”

Shih quickly pivoted to a different lab that would work with her rather than against her. After two years of testing shades on focus groups, she was ready to launch her brainchild: Orcé Cosmetics, a makeup brand specifically formulated for Asian skin.

The lack of understanding of non-white skin tones goes deeper than cost-cutting production methods. After consulting with her dermatologist, Shih learned that the problem starts in medical school. “When you’re starting dermatology, you are taught skin types on the Fitzpatrick scale, one through three. Asian skin is typically four and deeper,” she explains, adding that this oversight has affected her own medical care. Before finding her dermatologist, Shih was told she couldn’t receive certain laser treatments because they would cause hyperpigmentation. “When I asked [my dermatologist] about this, she said, ‘Funny enough, it's because we weren't trained to use lasers on Asian skin that is prone to heat and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.’ There’s a huge gap in skin education.”

I ask Shih what the biggest misconception surrounding Asian skin is. Based on my own experiences with makeup artists, brands, and middle-school bullies, I think I know what she’ll say. “We’re not just yellow,” Shih replies, confirming my suspicions. “We're a very, very diverse group of people. Yes, we generally share a golden undertone, but some of us are neutral. Some of us are olive, some of us are warm. There are so many subtleties in our undertones that you can't make the blanket statement, ‘Asians have yellow undertones.’’’

Foundation isn’t the only category that tends to exclude Asian customers. “There are so many, starting from false lashes,” Shih says. “A lot of them are way too aggressive for our eyes. For those of us who have monolids, very long and thick lashes are going to look unbalanced.” She also cites concealer (too pink or orange) and bronzer (too orange or red) as areas for improvement. “That’s something we hope to offer a solution for,” she hints, adding that color cosmetics are also in Orcé's future.

Still, complexion is at the brand's core. Orcé will continue to perfect its foundation range — which, by the way, offers a shockingly good match for my neutral-yellow undertones with shade 30N. “I'm a Libra. I don't feel comfortable launching something that I'm not 100% confident about,” Shih says. “12 shades is still a starting point. We're continuing to learn,” she adds, explaining that thousands of customer and audience surveys go into developing each new color. “Slowly but surely we're continuing to grow, and hopefully one day we'll be able to say that we have a shade for you, no matter how light or how deep your skin is.”

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