How SPF Became a Beauty Buzzword | BoF Professional, The Business of Beauty, News & Analysis

When Holly Thaggard founded her skin care brand, Supergoop!, in 2004, the sun care category barely existed. Sun protection was the domain of brands like Coppertone and Banana Boat, and primarily sold in drug stores as a seasonal product.

“The category was so sleepy,” said Thaggard. “There was no innovation and it was owned by the mass market.”

Today, Sephora’s skin care aisles are filled with moisturisers, foundations, and yes, sunscreens promising SPF protection. A trend first started by brands like Supergoop! and Coola, it’s now a space with growing competition, with brands like Procter & Gamble-owned Native entering the market, as well as start-ups like Habit or Kinship. In particular, in recent years there’s been a rise in brands that cater to people of colour, like Bolden or Black Girl Sunscreen, or Naomi Osaka’s forthcoming line with A-Frame Brands.

SPF-infused skin care products have even begun to outshine the self-tanning category.

Sephora’s website, for example, now stocks 164 items in the sunscreen category compared to just 61 under self tanner.

In prestige beauty, sun care is still a “niche” category, but it’s a very “successful” one, growing growing 9 percent in 2020, even as prestige skin care declined 11 percent, said Larissa Jensen, beauty industry adviser at NPD.

A wider variety of products has made SPF more appealing to a greater number of consumers. And as the category has grown, so has the conversation around not just the dangers of sun exposure, but the need for products that will protect your skin, rather than just benefit it aesthetically.

“It’s become the last step in your skincare routine,” she said.

From Bland to Beauty

To get consumers to embrace sunscreen as a beauty product, brands had to challenge how people viewed it. Sunscreen had long been marketed heavily in the summer months, most commonly in the form of thick, pungent lotions. Thaggard said that her goal was to shift that conversation, to “make sunscreen so that it’s not about beaches and bikinis.”

For SPF-centric brands, the foundational principle is typically to create products that would convince people to incorporate SPF into their daily routines year-round.

To capture the “makeup-loving young woman,” said Amanda Baldwin, Supergoop!’s chief executive, Supergoop! sells Glow Screen and Unseen Sunscreen. They offer SPF to a consumer that is looking for added shine (in the case of Glow Screen) or a makeup primer (for Unseen). Coola’s SPF setting spray is another example — it offers SPF to consumers who are worried reapplying will mess up their makeup.

Sunburn does not immediately cause skin cancer, and because of that, it can be difficult for researchers to evaluate exactly how much sunscreen reduces risk. But according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, using at least SPF 15 on a regular, daily basis reduces risk of developing skin cancer; squamous cell carcinoma is 40 percent and melanoma is 50 percent. Wearing SPF 30 will protect a person against approximately 97 percent of UVB rays — the ones that cause sunburns.

In SPF-focused beauty brand Coola’s early days, differentiating its product from those classic drugstore options was a priority, said Chris Birchby, Coola’s founder. The brand was sold primarily in beauty boutiques, resorts and spas, to separate itself from major sun care brands. It also focused on creating a unique product as well, with a different scent than the classic coconut smell so commonly associated with sunscreens.

The branding, too, had to feel at home in the prestige category. Christina Peng, Coola’s VP of innovation, said the company reevaluates its packaging every two years to keep it current with consumer needs.

“Whether it’s in the design, how the products feel, or even how we’re communicating those benefits, we always want to be kind of delivering more to the consumer, so that she really feels like she’s getting a lot out of that,” said Peng.

There’s also been an increase in SPF brands that cater to people of colour. It’s a particularly important category, as people of colour often receive later skin cancer diagnoses, according to American Academy of Dermatology, when it’s more difficult to treat.

But not all products on the market work for a BIPOC audience. Chalky white formulas may not blend into darker skin. That gap has propelled the creation of brands like Bolden and Black Girl Sunscreen, who sell a product that purports to be designed with people of colour in mind, as well as new investments from other brands.

“We see that broadly, the sun care market is not that inclusive,” said Birchby. “That’s why we’re always working to make formulas that look good on all different skin tones and types.

Still, Jensen said that brands shouldn’t jump into SPF just because it’s in vogue. As the category’s grown, expertise has become more important — clinical, doctor-backed brands, she said, are likely to carry more weight as a sunscreen brand.

“It’s important to understand from a branding perspective, does that make sense for your line?” she said.

Cultural Shifts

SPF’s rise in beauty has mirrored the growing consciousness about the dangers of sun exposure and tanning that have seen fewer people going to tanning beds and lathering on oil at the beach.

Tanned skin used to be the ideal in the US, but that attitude is changing. A 2017 report from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that the use of tanning beds had decreased by a third between 2010 and 2015.

SPF product innovation and advancements have helped to fuel that conversation, as brands have prioritised communicating SPF’s benefits to consumers. (However, those claims are not always what they’re made out to be — a 2017 study from Consumer Reports found that 23 of 60 tested sunscreens were overtouting their SPF number.)

“The utilitarian component of it, when you’re going to the beach or the pool, still exists,” said Jensen. “What the difference is now is that through education, consumers now recognise that SPF has to be a part of your daily life.”

But the shift has benefitted from larger forces at play. The clean beauty craze, for one, has propelled the idea that skin care and even cosmetics are not just for aesthetics, but for health as well. SPF’s very purpose is health-driven, and the conversation around safe ingredients in sunscreen has grown. As well as environmental concerns grow, reef-safe, sustainable sunscreen options have also grown in popularity, said Jensen.

The conversation still has room to grow, Birchby said, because “consumer use levels have not followed through as much as they should have.” He points to the BIPOC market in particular as an area that needs more investment.

By incorporating SPF into more beauty products, it’s become a standard in products and a person’s routine. The sheer growth of the sun care category — in terms of the number of brands and products, as well as consumer interest in it — has fuelled not just its place in the beauty industry, but consumer adoption of the product in general.

“What better way to encourage more consumers to adopt that healthy behaviour of wearing SPF every day than really blending seamlessly into that routine?” asked Peng.

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