On May 16, 2013, Katonya Breaux tweeted: "Can someone make brown sunscreen? Please! Must I look like a clown to protect my skin? #blackfolkburntoo."
She'd visited a dermatologist after noticing a couple small black moles had popped up on her face over recent years. She figured it was genetic: All her aunts had them. Nope, the dermatologist told her, this is sun damage.
"In my community and my family, we never wore sunscreen," Breaux said of her childhood in Los Angeles. "We'd hang out at the beach and outdoors all summer long."
She went directly from the dermatologist to Walgreens and bought sunblock. But when she smeared it on her face, white streaks remained. White residue got in her eyebrows. She says her eyes burned in what she figured was a reaction to some ingredients. Looking for something more natural, she tried mineral-based sunscreens, with zinc and titanium for sun protection, but found they left her dark skin even more white-tinged, or ashy violet. Then she took to Twitter.
"I became really bizarre about sun protection," she said. She wouldn't step outside to fetch the mail without a hat and sunscreen on. Although she had a bit of an online platform--in part because she previously had founded a company, and in part because she's the mother of musician Frank Ocean--no one was heeding her call to make sun-protection that didn't leave a white cast on non-white skin.
Breaux didn't intend to learn a new industry, formulate a product, and launch a new venture all because of her frustration with the existing products on the market. But the more she thought about how someone needed to create the first natural sunscreen designed for people of color, the more she wondered, why not her?
The DIY Formula
Breaux asked a friend in the haircare business if she could try creating her own sunscreen using their lab. After about four months and infinite research about ingredients and toxicity, Breaux and the lab came up with a tinted mineral sunscreen with no irritants that blended nicely into a range of skin hues, from "olive skin tones to darker than chocolate," as Breaux describes them.
While she originally made the sensitive-skin-friendly tinted sunscreen for herself, as she sent it around to her family and friends, she quickly found they loved it as much as she did. Breaux hadn't deeply considered starting a company--heck, she'd just shut down her custom-home construction company, which she'd founded and run in New Orleans for 20 years. She had bought a home in Los Angeles and was in the middle of a divorce. Entrepreneurship again? That wasn't the plan. Then a conversation with her son changed everything.
Ocean saw a big opportunity for education. "We talked about how it could help people who didn't even consider that sunscreen could help protect them from cancer--and how the brand could have an educational component," she said. Breaux wanted the brand to reflect radical inclusiveness.
"Women of color have been excluded in certain ways from parts of the beauty industry," she said. She notes that drug stores tend to separate out products for curly hair, and darker shades of makeup are often the last thing a beauty brand develops. She wanted to do the opposite: be inclusive of all skin shades from the start.
Turning her DIY sunscreen into a consumer-facing business wouldn't be straightforward: The lab in which she'd created the original product hadn't been FDA-certified. Any over-the-counter sunscreen would require a lot of certifications, including by the FDA. She'd need another lab to take this on.
She hired a consultant and met with another local manufacturer of skin and hair products, Packaging on Demand. The company's vice president of sales and marketing, Alisa Sherlock, was immediately impressed by Breaux, and the fact she had an initial product, website, logo, brand, and long-term vision for her company.
"My first impression was she knew exactly what she was doing," said Sherlock. "She's really particular about what goes into her products, and I knew I wanted to work with her immediately."
In 2016, Breaux's self-funded company, UnSun Cosmetics, launched.
It had just one product, the tinted mineral sunscreen, and was hyper-transparent about its ingredients (all are listed on its website, as well as a list of what's not in it, including oxybenzone, glycol, propylene, parabens, and phthalates). It was made in Los Angeles, and attracted press coverage upon launch for the combination of all those things--and, of course, because Breaux was the mom of music royalty. Ocean--born as Christoper Edwin Breaux--would top the Billboard charts that fall with "Blonde."
Ocean has been a devoted customer and supporter of UnSun. He mentions the importance of sun protection regularly in interviews and uses the product daily, says Breaux: "I have to send him a case every month." (When he failed to shout out his mom's company in an interview, he later posted online, "Hahah sorry ma yea @unsuncosmetics really is theee daily [key emoji].") UnSun's Instagram account takes advantage of the connection by featuring stills from an Ocean video or images of a magazine cover, and frequently uses the hashtag #FrankOcean. It feels more "doting mother" than flaunting, though. Breaux herself (whose glowy skin has about as many age lines as that of a 24-year-old) appears frequently in posts along with a diverse cast of skin models.
Taking It Slow
The company is still scrappy, with three employees and production in Los Angeles, and most of its sales are direct-to-consumer through its website. Breaux isn't taking a salary--and is still pumping money into producing the sunscreen and a line of adjacent products, including tinted lip balms with SPF. Three new products are currently in lab development, which she admits is a costly process. UnSun has yet to spend a penny on marketing outside of its own website, although it is in the process of hiring a marketing director. Breaux says she is working on a couple major retail partnerships with national distribution for 2019, and therefore expects revenue to more than triple to $250,000 by the end of the year.
The sun-protection market is broadening--from not-quite $2 billion in 2016 to a projected $2.5 billion market by 2025, according to Grand View Research--due to increasing awareness that sunscreen isn't just for beaches or vacations anymore, as one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70. Other growing companies, such as Supergoop and Think, are launching more sunscreen and skincare products, and taking more shelf space in beauty aisles and beauty stores, like Sephora, rather than in pharmacy departments. Perhaps the market with the most opportunity, though, is men, who typically are unaccustomed to slathering anything on their face every day. Breaux's son telling GQ his daily skin-care rou tine certainly can't hurt her chances at appealing to that market.
Direct competition is popping up, too. There's Black Girl Sunscreen, which launched in 2016 in Miami and was designed to be clear, to avoid the white cast on skin, and Bolden, which started in 2017 by marketing a clear gel moisturizer with sunscreen.
Breaux is aiming not for the rocket-fueled growth other initially direct-to-consumer startups pray for. She's not looking for outside investment--at least not until she gets the company's valuation up--and groans lightly when asked if she'd ever go on Shark Tank or other television shows for publicity purposes. "I don't feel like I need to grow in five minutes," she said. "You end up rushing to do things you don't love. I don't mind the extra time it takes to deliver really great products."
UnSun's manufacturer is bullish on the brand's growth into the mass market, and sees 2019 as a potential inflection point. "I see this next year being awesome," Sherlock said. "You're going to be seeing a lot more UnSun?."