How Does Atopic Dermatitis Present in Skin of Color?

Doug Brunk

December 12, 2021

The clinical presentation of atopic dermatitis (AD) in skin of color varies widely, which may create a challenge for clinicians.

"We see very heterogenous and broad clinical presentations across the diverse patient populations that we see," Andrew F. Alexis, MD, MPH, said during the 3rd Annual Revolutionizing Atopic Dermatitis (RAD) Virtual Conference. "Some of these differences might be related to population variations in skin barrier function, immunologic factors, genetic factors, and environmental factors, which all interplay to produce variations in the clinical presentation and overall impact of AD. Many nongenetic factors also contribute to differences that we see, including some socioeconomic and other factors that feed into health disparities."

Alexis, professor of clinical dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York City, discussed four main clinical features of AD in skin of color, as follows.

Erythema Is Less Visible Because It Is Masked by Pigment

"There can be some masking of the redness and alteration of that color such that it doesn't look bright red as it would in the background of lightly pigmented skin," Alexis said. "Instead, the [AD lesions] have shades of grayish-red or grayish-brown or reddish-brown. It's important to recognize this clinical presentation and look carefully and assess the patient — not just visually but with palpation and take into consideration symptomatology so that you don't fall into the trap of calling an AD lesion postinflammatory hyperpigmentation," he noted. "It's also helpful to isolate the islands of normal or nonlesional skin and contrast that with the areas of lesional skin, to get a sense of how active and inflamed the areas are. Palpation really helps to appreciate the elevation of the lesions that are involved."

Follicular Accentuation

Morphologic variants common in skin of color include the follicular variant or micropapular variant of AD. "You might just see a collection of papules that are 1 to 2 mm in size and pruritic and in typical sites of predilection [for] eczema," he said. Prurigo nodularis-like lesions or prurigo nodularis in association with AD are also seen more frequently in skin of color.


The lichenoid variant of AD is characterized by a violaceous hue and other features that resemble lichen planus and has been reported to be more common in individuals of African descent. A prospective study of about 1000 patients with AD seen over 2 years at a dermatology clinic in southeastern Nigeria found that 54% of patients had papular lichenoid lesions. In addition, 51% had elevated blood eosinophil counts, especially those with severe disease.

Alexis added that psoriasiform features have been reported in studies of East Asian populations with AD. These plaques may be more well-demarcated and have clinical and histologic features that resemble psoriasis, he said.


One common feature across the spectrum of patients with skin of color "is the risk of longstanding pigmentary sequelae in the form of hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation," said Alexis, who is also vice-chair for diversity and inclusion for the department of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine. "In very severe longstanding areas with chronic excoriation to the point of breaking of the skin, eroding of the skin, causing permanent damage to the melanocytes, dyspigmentation that resembles vitiligo can be seen. We can also see hypopigmentation as a consequence of topical corticosteroids, particularly those that are class I or class II and are used for prolonged periods of time."

Alexis noted that delays in treatment and under-treatment can contribute to a higher risk of pigmentary and other long-term sequelae. "New therapies show promise in improving outcomes in AD patients with skin of color," he added. "When it comes to therapeutic responses, there are some post-hoc studies that have investigated potential differences in safety and efficacy of the agents that have been recently approved. We clearly need more data to better understand if there are potential racial or ethnic differences."

Alexis has reported no relevant financial relationships.

The 3rd Annual RAD Conference. Presented December 12, 2021.

Doug Brunk is a San Diego-based award-winning reporter for MDedge and Medscape who began covering healthcare in 1991. He is the author of two books related to the University of Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball program.

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.