Every so often some white adoptive parent who belongs to an online forum I frequent starts mildly freaking out over her (black) child's scars. Why are they so much lighter than the rest of the skin? Is there something wrong? Is there a cream or something to help the scars heal? And so on. This week this happened, and I responded, and I responded very politely, but I was so annoyed. White people, please! Have you never noticed that when a scab falls off of YOUR skin, that the new skin is slightly lighter than the surrounding skin? Perhaps if your skin is very pale the difference is almost imperceptible but surely,surely at some time in your childhood you had a bit of a tan and noticed the contrast between your tanned skin and the lighter skin underneath your latest scab? Why this immediate tendency to pathologize/otherize?
But then I did some poking around on the web to see if I could out why new skin appears to lack pigment, and happened upon a Journal of Pediatric Health Care article that has left me feeling less outraged and more humbled. I didn't find an answer to my question about pigment--although I gather that the melanin-producing melanocytes are easily damaged from any trauma to the skin--but I did learn that there are some important differences between black skin and white skin that I would do well to be aware of. Especially this:
All people shed the upper layers of epidermis as a normal physiologic process. The shed layers are darker if the nuclei have more melanin. Thus, when the skin of an African American child is cleansed with an alcohol wipe, for instance, the wipe will look darker than it does when white skin is wiped, not because of dirt but because of shed cells with rich melanin deposits. If after seeing the color of the alcohol wipe a mother comments that she just gave the child a bath, this is a good time to teach her that this skin debris with its natural color is normal, helping to prevent low self esteem as a result of a perception of uncleanliness.
See what I mean? A bit humbling, no? So much for my righteous anger...
Also, I learned that black skin is more prone to the formation of keloids, benign growths that often form at the location of an older injury. Ear piercing can cause keloids on the ear, but since infants generally do not form keloids, ear piercing during infancy avoids keloid development.
Finally, there's a ton to learn about acne-related scarring (also plenty about this on the web).
Unfortunately, I don't think the article is available online free of charge, but perhaps you can sweettalk your local library into helping you out:
W. Smith, C. Burns. (1999). Managing the hair and skin of African American pediatric patients. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, Volume 13, Issue 2, Pages 72-78.