The Sunscreen Company Puts Sun Protection At The Center Of Self-Care Routines

Sunscreen is one of the most challenging products in the beauty industry. It’s more regulated than other merchandise. People have strong opinions about how it should look, feel and work. Not everyone wears it regularly, and it can be tough for retailers to communicate what distinguishes subpar sunscreens from superior options. The Sunscreen Company is addressing those challenges head-on. The zinc oxide authority has crafted simple, potent formulas that don’t suffer from many of the thick-and-pasty problems of ordinary sunscreens. “When someone touches our sunscreens, we want them to see the difference and, hopefully, they can get a sense that we’ve really worked to build a sunscreen expertise,” says Sara Dudley, executive director of Ottawa-based The Sunscreen Company. Beauty Independent chatted with Dudley about the origins of The Sunscreen Company and its three lines, product packaging, pricing, distribution, consumers’ sun-protection behavior, regulatory issues in the sunscreen segment and ultimate goals.

How did The Sunscreen Company begin?

In its original form, the company was first created back in 1995. We are a family company, and my mother and father are physicians. My mother is dermatologist, and my father, who’s retired now, was a high-risk OBGYN and endocrinologist. A patient brought a sunscreen to my father and asked, “Is this safe to use during pregnancy?” He had never thought about that before. He said, “Let me go ask my wife.” It made sense for the two of them to put their heads together. They started to learn more about sunscreens, but weren’t seeing the efficacy they wanted. They found our chemist, Tom Heinar, who is also one of our partners. He’s a very skilled technician when it comes to formulas, but he’s also very artistic. He’s a completely unique personality. From 1995 to 2008, when I came into the company, they were developing prototypes. I would try them as a teenager. They had a binder of full of formulas, but hadn’t put anything into production. I had been working in Washington, and I was thinking I might stay there and work at a non-profit, but I wondered whether they’d let me try to bring what they’d developed to market. I had no background in cosmetics or business, but I asked them, “Will you take a chance on me?” They were both busy physicians at the time, and they said, “Give it a shot.” Within about six months, we had something in a bottle.

What was the debut product?

One of the first products we had was the Every Morning Sun Whip SPF 25. It’s a 15% zinc oxide sunscreen. We got this product into people’s hands, and they had great reaction to it. They loved the way it felt. We realized we were onto something and started working on more sunscreen formulas. In 2011, we had been at it three years. We had built up an expertise in sunscreens, and we wondered if anyone had called themselves The Sunscreen Company before. Nobody had. So, we decided that we would be The Sunscreen Company. Since then, we have really focused on zinc oxide sunscreens. We push not only their efficacy, but their aesthetics. If it doesn’t look good on the skin, it doesn’t do any good.

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Where did you initially envision The Sunscreen Company’s products selling?

We first started selling in my mother’s dermatology practice. We thought we would sell in physicians’ offices. It was tough because a lot of what we were saying wasn’t embraced by the medical community. We are talking about how ingredients could get absorbed in the body and how they could be endocrine disruptors. It was at the start of the green beauty movement, and physicians weren’t necessarily responding to it. We didn’t do as well with them as we thought we would. We did better with consumers directly, and we started to sell through green beauty stores. We find now that, when we talk to a physician as a parent or an individual, we get more traction. Today, we are sold in about 60 spas, med spas and physicians’ offices across Canada. We are looking to push into the U.S. with a more diverse distribution portfolio. We have new lines that are less tailored to medical outlets that could do really well in the green beauty space.

What makes your sunscreens unique on the market?

In North America, we are still very limited in the choices we have. There’s oxybenzone, a potential endocrine disruptor, and there’s zinc oxide. In the 90s, zinc oxide was very white and pasty. People didn’t want to put it on their faces everyday. We specialize in zinc oxide, and it’s become more elegant and easy to use. With zinc oxide, you need to use high concentrations. The maximum allowed in North America is 25%, and you need to have between 15% and 25%. What we do differently with zinc oxide is we’re very good at formulating in high concentrations that you want to use everyday. We focus primarily on the face because we know that we can convince people to use a face sunscreen everyday. It’s not as easy for the body. We have a patent-pending innovation we call Bio UVA. It’s uses an eco-certified organic material that makes zinc oxide much more efficient at protecting from UVA and UVB rays, and it’s raising your UVA and UVB protection. It gives a 15% zinc oxide sunscreen the protection of a 25% zinc oxide sunscreen. We are making zinc oxide the best ingredient it can possibly be.

How many products does The Sunscreen Company have on the market today?

We have 14, four sunscreens and 10 cosmetics. We have three product lines under The Sunscreen Company family. We have Cyberderm, our original clinical line that’s intended for a professional setting. We have Ava Isa, and that’s a new line of sunscreens that are ultra-matte. When you put the sunscreens on the skin, they completely disappear. It’s designed for a slightly younger demographic. We have Natrèceutique, which is what a natural line would look like if a dermatologist were to create it. In the Cyberderm line,  a new formula of Simply Zinc Ultra SPF 50 will launch in spring, and it’s a game changer because of the innovation we’ve included. We also have another product that is currently available that has a 1% retinoid ester and is very popular. We take something that would normally be used in a prescription and modify it so can be sold as a cosmetic.

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Pretend we are a retailer. Give us a quick pitch on why we should pick up The Sunscreen Company.

We have three lines and can give a retailer what’s right for them. There’s Cyberderm, a professional line that can address concerns a patient might see. Ava Isa is for a younger demographic that wants tinted products in their skincare regimen. We are getting them to use a great sunscreen at the same time as they are getting their tint. Natrèceutique is a line with zero irritants in it. We don’t use essential oils, and there are no fragrances. There’s a high concentration of actives that delivers targeted benefits. They are simple, elegant formulations that are authentic and transparent.

What are aspects of sunscreens you believe retailers should be discussing with their customers?

Zinc oxide is the first thing customers should look for because titanium dioxide doesn’t provide as good UVA protection, and they have to look for a high enough concentration to give them the protection they need. That starts the conversation from a positive point of view instead of saying there are issues with what else is out there.

What’s the price range of The Sunscreen Company’s products?

It’s about $30 to $80. We use expensive ingredients that are specialized and innovative. Some are Ecocert certified organic, and none are what I would call cheap fillers. Our newer formulas are 75% to 80% natural, and they don’t include water, which is generally a cheap ingredient. They are highly concentrated with active ingredients. Our actives are in the 1% to 5% range. That goes into the pricing. Everything is made in Canada as well. In Natrèceutique, we use really high concentrations of beautiful oils like hibiscus oil. We use 10% concentrations. The bases are hydrating, nourishing and good for the skin. When we choose actives, we look to see what they are going to do on the skin, and we rely on dermatological principles.

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What’s behind how the product packaging looks?

For Ava Isa, we wanted to speak to a younger demographic, and we tried to make the packaging feel romantic and beautiful. We don’t want people to feel like they’re using medicines. We want to make sure they enjoy this step as much as any other step. For Natrèceutique, we also wanted the packaging to be beautiful, so people can enjoy it as part of their self-care ritual even if we are approaching self-care from a slightly more medical perspective than other green beauty brands. It has really nice glass bottles that are sustainable, but also are airless to keep the products pristine. When we first started with Cyberderm, it was for physicians, and we didn’t think about the marketing as much as the formulas. Marketing was almost a negative word, but we have come a long way. In addition to trusting the formulas, we know people want to use something they have an emotional response to.

Why do you want to extend from Canada into the U.S.?

Canada is relatively small. In the U.S., there is so much opportunity. There’s been an explosion of green beauty stores from very intelligent entrepreneurs. We want to connect with them. Because we are still relatively small, if we’re to work with a larger, more mainstream retailer, we would have to think about ways we could do that while growing organically with supplies managed reasonably. We might reach out to select online retailers or traditional retailers with more a niche presence online that are looking to build the wellness category.

What is consumer behavior like when it comes to sun protection?

There’s a huge gap between what people think they should be doing and what they are actually doing. About 80% of people acknowledge that they should use a sunscreen every single day, but 15% to 20% actually do it. I can 100% understand why. The front of sunscreen bottles doesn’t communicate what consumers should know. People feel confused. What’s a good sunscreen? What should they be looking for? What does SPF mean, and what SPF should they use? The story of a sunscreen is on the back with the ingredients and, even there, the picture isn’t complete. Sunscreen isn’t a perfect product, but it’s getting better and better. Hopefully, we can start to build trust between the consumers and our company’s sunscreens.

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What have you most challenging in terms of getting The Sunscreen Company to where you want it to go?

It’s a pro and a con that we are small. It makes [us] credible, and we have the freedom and flexibility to do what we want to do. However, trying to get our message out, which is not necessarily something you can sum up in one sentence, is something we always have to work hard to do. When we speak to retailers, people are engaged and want to bring the products in, but sales support is new for us, and we are working on it. We have to learn to amplify our message.

Are the products highly seasonal?

Because we do small 50-ml. sizes for the face, people respond to the idea that they have to use sunscreen every single day, and we have built products aesthetically that people want to use everyday. Especially when we sell directly to consumers, we have reduced seasonality. We still see seasonality with our retail partners, and the media typically gets excited about sunscreens in the summer. We say that UVA rays are constant all year-round and accumulated UVA [exposure] contributes to skin cancer. For a lot of people, though, it’s about vanity. What makes them act to use sunscreen every single day is that UVA also contributes to aging. If you don’t wear sunscreen, the work you are doing with all your other products gets undermined.

What developments could impact the sunscreen segment?

It’s exciting to think about what’s technically possible, but what you can do is restricted a bit because regulations are slow to change. In 2012, we expected the FDA to permit the use of filters that have been used in Europe for a very long time that sit on the skin, are effective against UVA and don’t get absorbed into the body. They could really change the way we formulate in North America. They are excellent filters that I wish we had access to, but nothing has happened. That’s too bad because it could widen our selection. We have a formula in research and development that uses what we call Tri Perfect. It has three filters — zinc oxide and two filters allowed in Europe — that gets us much closer to the perfect sunscreen, but, until the regulations change, North America won’t have access to it. However, we are definitely seeing innovation with dispersion techniques that make zinc oxide more efficient. They make for better sunscreens. In terms of trends, people want tinted sunscreens, especially 25- to 30-year-olds. They don’t want to choose between not wearing sunscreen and wearing a primer with skin-illuminating benefits. The want sunscreen, but not to skimp on tint.

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Sara Dudley sharing information about The Sunscreen Company with an attendee at Indie Beauty Expo in Los Angeles.

What are changes that have been made at The Sunscreen Company that have been key to moving the business forward?

A lot of what we have been doing as a company hasn’t necessarily been consumer-facing. If you are going to make sunscreens, which are drugs, you have to lock down quality control. You have to meet the stringent criteria of the FDA and Health Canada, so your retailer partners and consumers can have confidence in you. We knew we were making products that were great and safe, but there is a huge regulatory component to this that we didn’t fully appreciate. From an operational point of view, we had to master the things that aren’t necessarily obvious to people not in the industry.

What are some of your short- and long-term goals at The Sunscreen Company?

In the short term, we are focused on moving into the U.S. We want to really expand the distribution of our sunscreens. As people take a cautionary approach to sun care, the story we are telling will become the dominant sunscreen narrative. We want to educate our industry and push for cohesive regulations so consumers can make better choices. We have two founders that are physicians, and they started the company to make products to help their patients and people more broadly.

[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on February 25, 2018. It has been reposted on July 4 for the ‘official’ start of summer.]