Sean Garrette on Why Black Men Shouldn't Be Left Out of the Skin-Care Conversation

Sean Garrette is a New York City-based aesthetician. For our column UNTOLD, he is sharing how he went from being a makeup artist to working as the global ambassador for Fenty Skin. This story was told to Danielle Jackson and edited for length and clarity.

My career in skin care kind of happened on accident. I was always interested in working in fashion, but one of my family members actually said to me recently, "I always saw you in this field because you've always been interested in beauty, whether it be hair, makeup, or skin."

When I did realize that people worked in skin care for a living, I only saw white women doing it, so I never thought it was something that would be feasible for me. I was working as a freelance makeup artist at a spa in Baltimore and working with a few skin-care brands there. I would always preach to my clients the importance of skin care, because when you're doing makeup and you're so close to people's faces, you can see all their skin issues. So I started giving my clients recommendations and consulting them on skin care while also performing a makeup service, and it kind of got to a point where all my clients were like, "You should just do skin. That's what you seem to be the most passionate about."

I had moved to Atlanta to live with my mom for a bit to figure out what I wanted to do with my career. The first week, it just clicked that I should go to aesthetics school. I decided to take the leap, and the next week we went for a tour, and I enrolled. I was like, "OK, this is clearly what I wanna do, so this is what I'm going to focus on." That was about three-and-a-half years ago, and it's pretty much been my trajectory since.

On Getting His Foot in the Door

When I first started as an aesthetician, before I even graduated, my instructors told me I was very talented and they saw me having a great career, but they wanted me to be aware that me being a Black male in such a female-oriented field could be challenging, and it absolutely was.

When I first was auditioning for jobs in Atlanta, I pretty much got turned down from every single spa job that I applied to, and I had recommendations from every instructor that I had, I had a 4.0 throughout school, I had great references, but just because of what I look like, I missed out on a lot of opportunities. When I finally got hired at my first job as an aesthetician, it took me a while to build my book because, for one, it was a very white-centric salon so people just didn't trust me. I've had very traumatic experiences with that, but I was also able to persevere, and my work really spoke for me.

That's the thing about aestheticians. A lot of our business is word of mouth, so if you're good at what you do, it will travel and you will definitely build your clientele and your book. But it's definitely not easy to start, and being an aesthetician within a salon, you don't make a lot of money, so you're literally just hustling for every single penny that you get.

On the Power of Social Media

I grew up on the internet pretty much sharing everything, so it was natural for me to share what products were really working for my skin. I didn't get acne until I turned 21. That really accelerated my scientific obsession with skin because I wanted to fix it. I'm a Virgo, so once I put my mind to something, I fixate on it and accomplish it. I was researching different acne treatments and what ingredients work for certain types of acne, and I would say that in like two to three months, I completely cleared my acne.

I naturally like to help people solve issues. I really liked to put emphasis on helping people online because there were so many people who didn't have access to aestheticians, and I kind of realized that in my schooling. I felt like if I can help people just with an Instagram post telling them what they could get at the store, it would be a lot more helpful than them just kind of suffering trying to figure it out on their own.

The fact that I would just review a product on Instagram and share my experience, and people trust me, my work, and my experience, that means a lot to me — that has built my entire career. My honesty and the fact that I'm kind of brutally honest about a lot of things — I think people kind of look to me for that unbiased truth.

Having an online presence has been helpful in the last few months during COVID because, thankfully, I've built my social media business aside from my spa business, so I've been able to sustain my income and thrive and flourish at this time.

On His Biggest Breaks in Beauty

Before Fenty, I was with Paula's Choice for about two years, and I still work with them. What I liked about Paula was that they were effortlessly inclusive before it was a conversation, before it was a trend to post Black people and talk about the effects of the products and the ingredients on Black skin. They were already there doing it. They were featuring Black people, trans people, gay people, nonbinary people — they were covering the spectrum and really creating a conversation around inclusion in skin care. On top of that, they had great products, they had great formulas, and it was affordable.

That's also another thing I look for in a brand; if products are just ridiculously priced, it's really not something I'm going to invest my time in. I might use it privately, but it's not something I'm going to put into the world because no one should ever have to pay $300 for a serum or $400 for a cream. That's ridiculous. I look for the ethics of the brand, an innate sense of diversity and inclusion, a great price point, and a good team. I want to know that the people that I'm working with value my time, my talent, and what I put into the space. I don't just look for how many Black people you post on your feed. It really goes beyond that.

Even me being the global ambassador for Fenty, an LVMH brand that's in Sephora — that's a huge step. You usually don't see Black men at the forefront of any kind of skin-care company that's not targeted specifically to Black men, so I definitely think the conversation is getting better, and I think people also see the importance of having Black aestheticians.

On the Importance of Having Black Experts in Skin Care

For me, I've reached a place in my career where I definitely have more access and I'm through the door at this point, but there are still challenges that I deal with.

For so many years, we've heard horror stories of Black people, especially Black women, going to white aestheticians to get skin treatments that they weren't educated in in terms of their skin. Skin care really is a personal thing and an educational thing, so if you aren't taught how to treat Black skin specifically — because there are differences in treating white skin vs. Black skin — you can seriously injure someone. There are tons of stories of people having bad laser experiences, chemical peels that have caused chemical burns and reactions, so I definitely think the conversation is opening up and the appreciation for the hard work that Black aestheticians do because, to be honest, we have to be even more educated than our white counterparts to even survive in this industry.

Skin care is for everyone. You don't have to be a certain person or make a certain amount of money to have good skin. I think that's why, on my platform, I cover everything from The Ordinary — which has $7 serums — to Fenty, where everything is under $40, or sometimes a more luxury product where a serum might be $70 or $80. Skin care should be accessible, it should be inclusive, and I think that's what my platform really represents and sets the tone. Whether you are a man, a woman, nonbinary, gay, straight, white, skin care is for everyone.