NEW YORK, United States — A few years ago, Katonya Breaux was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, frustrated. She'd been slathering on a tinted, mineral-based sunscreen, but it wasn't dark enough to match her skin. Her face had a white sheen to it.
Breaux — who is mom to recording artist Frank Ocean — rarely wears makeup, but with the sun beating down, blending the sunscreen with foundation was her only option if she didn't want to walk around like a ghost of herself. As she put on her face makeup and got an idea: What if she could make a sunscreen that matched her skin as well as the foundation did?
For women of colour, there has been an enormous improvement in the range of foundations available, especially from widely sold lines. L'Oreal-owned Lancôme's Teint Idole foundation comes in 40 shades. Estée Lauder’s Clinique makes its Even Better Makeup SPF 15 in 30 different shades, from “very fair” to “deep” (with 16 colours from “medium” to “deep”), and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics sells its foundations and powders in 30 shades, half of which range from tan to espresso.
Last year, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty launched with 40 shades of matte foundations, from alabaster to deep brown with cool undertones — and by doing so, has achieved rapid sales from women waiting for these colours. The company hasn't released sales numbers but online research firm Slice Intelligence found that Rihanna's brand could become the top celebrity-founded makeup line, surpassing Kylie Cosmetics. Its sales in September 2017, its first month on the market, were five times that of Kylie Cosmetics and jumped up 34 percent the following month.
Women who were once all but ignored by the majority of the beauty market are now being courted.
It's a major shift: Women who were once all but ignored by the majority of the beauty market are now being courted. But brands are only starting to address sunscreen for people of colour — a group that could be an even bigger market because it would include both women and men. In the US, the multicultural demographic comprises over a third of the population, and their spending power is growing more quickly than the country’s average, per a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
According to NPD Group, sun care is a quick-growing area in general. Sales of prestige skincare and makeup products with any SPF reached $1.4 billion in 2016, a 7 percent increase since 2014. The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends people wear an SPF 30 every day, regardless of their skin type.
Suncare that will work on non-white skin can be formulated in two ways. It can made from natural ingredients, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and tinted. Most of what's on the market, however, according to Dr. Anne Chapas, a dermatologist in New York City, isn't dark enough for some skin. "I see a lot of tinted sunscreens where they say they work on every skin colour, but they stop at Hispanic or light Asian skin," she says. "So they're not universal."
Breaux wanted a non-chemical block that wouldn't sting her eyes, so she created a tinted formula, but one that was darker than what was on the market already. In 2016, she launched Unsun, a suncare brand made specifically to be used by people of colour. The packaging states: "Because the sun does not discriminate against skin complexions or skin tones."
However, she also wanted the line to work for Caucasian skin, so she ended up creating another shade — one with a lighter tint. "Zinc and titanium are pure white," she says of the active ingredients. "No one's that white."
Then there are also clear, chemical-based formulas, made most commonly with avobenzone, retinyl palmitate, and oxybenzone. SkinCeuticals Light Moisture UV Defense SPF 50, which launches in May, is a clear gel. "It has a chemical filter system and no tint, so it is about as universal as it can get," says Leslie Harris, the global general manager of SkinCeuticals.
We wouldn't develop any product that wouldn't be appropriate on all skin tones.
CoverFX, a brand that's known for customising foundation shades so customers can have a perfect match, also makes a clear formula, Clear Cover Invisible Sunscreen With Broad Spectrum SPF 30. To protect against additional environmental stressors, it has added antioxidants such as sesame extract and tomato extract. "We wouldn't develop any product that wouldn't be appropriate on all skin tones," says Stephanie So, CoverFX's chief marketing officer. "That was a standard that we were working towards. That's why this formula is so clear." Glossier also has an invisible, chemical-based sunscreen.
Besides creating the right formula, the other challenge for suncare brands catering to customers with darker complexions is education. Melanin-rich skin is naturally more resistant to the sun, but that doesn’t mean you can skip the SPF. "Maybe you're not as prone to wrinkles or skin cancer, but aging and discolouration are really problems that everyone faces," Dr. Chapas says. "In my cosmetic practice, I see a lot of skin discolouration in darker skin types as people age. Patients are always looking for things to help even out their complexion."
Because sunscreen is considered a drug, rather than a cosmetic, all of the products have to be approved by the FDA, something Breaux didn't realize when she started developing Unsun. The first lab she used wasn't sanctioned by the FDA, so she had to re-create the product with a new lab. “I was on a tremendous learning curve,” she says. “We started from scratch.” She was able to recreate the colour and texture of the first product, and everything’s been going well, but, she cautions anyone else thinking about following her lead: “If you want to start a business three months from now, don't go into sun protection,” she laughs.