What’s with all the direct-to-consumer sunscreen brands?

Five online sunscreen brands explain the differences between their products.

Sunscreen brand Vacation launched in April. (Photo: Vacation)


You’re vaxxed. You’re waxed. But have you thought about protection?

With the prospect of a hedonistic hot vax summer around the corner, it’s likely that many of us will spend more time frolicking outside and socializing – among other things – as the summer months heat up. And that means SPF is going to be a must.

According to a survey by RealSelf Sun, just 11% of American adults wear sunscreen daily, with most only bothering to put it on if they know they’re going to be out basking in the sun. Fortunately, a crop of direct-to-consumer brands have launched in recent years to help us make sure we remember to apply our SPF. The likes of Habit, Supergoop and Lumasol have launched brands purely with the intention of tapping into the $13 billion sun-care products market. They are not the only ones: beauty brands have also been busy expanding their skincare and makeup collections to incorporate SPF, with Glossier reportedly spending two years developing its sunscreen (with the aim of getting it to apply more like a serum than a greasy paste).

Not wanting to miss out on the upcoming summertime boom, deodorant brand Native has just launched its own SPF product, while sunscreen brands Bask and Vacation have also made their debuts in the past two months.

But with so many sunscreen brands now trying to sell SPF to us online (there are 11 brands in the Thingtesting directory that launched with sunscreen, and countless other cosmetics brands that have gone on to sell SPF), how can consumers choose between them? And really, what is the difference between all these sunscreens?

We asked the brands themselves to explain. Here is a selection of their comments.

What sets your sunscreen apart from everyone else’s?

Tom Austen, Pelotan: "We specifically focus on sunscreen for athletes. For larger multinational cosmetics [companies], sport-specific sunscreen is, at best, a distraction from the mass market. We set out to create a product that considers the needs of athletes. Our formula doesn’t block pores, meaning your body can effectively regulate temperature. It’s also highly water and sweat resistant, meaning it won’t slide off or drip into your eyes during your workout."

Lach Hall, Vacation: "While there has been some great SPF innovation in the beauty space, those products are typically at a high price point and marketed specifically towards women. Vacation was created to bring fun and innovation back to sunscreen. It’s sunscreen that takes leisure as seriously as it does protection, so wearing SPF is no longer a chore. Everything from the look, the feel, the smell is designed to take you to paradise."

Tai Adaya, Habit: "My mission with Habit is a healthcare mission. Traditionally, sunscreen has been marketed as a beach product. Using SPF on vacation is important, but it’s even more important to use it daily. Cumulative UV exposure – those bits every day – is the majority external factor that drives skin aging. I really see skincare in the 2020s being about the convergence of skin and healthcare, and, finally, products designed by and for non-white consumers."

Mike Huffstetler, Bask: "Every single thing we do [at Bask] is rooted in skin cancer prevention, and we want to do that by making suncare something that people can get excited about; something people want to wear. Far and away the number one thing preventing people from wearing sunscreen is they hate how it feels on their skin."

Holly Thaggard, Supergoop: "I was inspired to change the way the world thinks about sunscreen so we could stop skin cancer in its tracks. That was also 16 years ago. We were the first brand to create oxybenzone-free SPF, and that’s set the tone for our formulas that have followed. While our product lineup includes moisturizers, primers, body lotions and more – all with SPF – a lot of our competitors have vast skincare or makeup offerings with maybe one or two SPF products in the mix."

Why are there so many brands selling sunscreen online these days?

Austen, Pelotan: "I think the sunscreen category has been fairly stale for years. A handful of large pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies have owned the retail shelf-space where people have traditionally bought sunscreen. What the direct-to-consumer model has done is create a space for considered, niche products as opposed to the ‘one-product-suits-all’ mass market alternatives. [That’s] as true for every category as it is for sunscreen."

Adaya, Habit: "Consumers want products that empower them to make healthy choices. Our understanding of human longevity is evolving, and our understanding of UV’s effect on skin-aging is relatively new. We’re just at the beginning with SPF."

Huffstetler, Bask: "Awareness around harmful ingredients is really growing in this category. When Hawaii banned oxybenzone and octinoxate, a lot of consumers started asking questions. Getting more clean ingredient options into the market was definitely part of my motivation to build a sunscreen brand."

[Editor’s note: oxybenzone and octinoxate were banned by Hawaii in 2018 over concerns about coral-reef health, rather than humans. Harvard Health Publishing has more on the safety of sunscreen ingredients.]

Thaggard, Supergoop: "The world has finally caught onto the importance of SPF when it comes to daily skincare. As a result, SPF’s reputation has totally begun to shift. There are also so many new and innovative things happening in the industry in terms of clean ingredients and innovative formats."

What should consumers be looking for in a sunscreen? What questions do they need to ask brands?

Austen, Pelotan: "Consumers should be thinking about what they’ll be doing when wearing the sunscreen and consider the best product for that activity – clearly your skin has different requirements on long bike rides or days in the mountains than it does lying around a pool. There are tons of different UV filters, formulations and levels of protection, and what is right for one person might not be right for the next."

Hall, Vacation: "A top priority is making sure a sunscreen offers broad spectrum protection, with an SPF of at least 30. Following this, you’re not going to use a sunscreen that isn’t enjoyable to apply. This comes back to our mission [that is] about making formulas that solve a very important problem: people wear sunscreen, but often don't wear enough – and don't reapply."

Adaya, Habit: "[Find a sunscreen] that you will use daily. For me, that’s products that feel like a treat, that bring joy, and, of course, products that work. If you’re non-white, I think it’s important to ask if the product was designed with you in mind. Were you considered in the creation of this?"

Huffstetler, Bask: "To become conscious consumers, we need to ask key questions that get to the root of formulation and mission. Those can be: What ingredients are used in the formulation? Can any of those be categorized as toxic? Are the products eco-friendly? Does the brand hold a meaningful purpose outside of just selling a product?"

Thaggard, Supergoop: "Consumers should be looking for an SPF that works for them – one they love to wear every day. That may sound obvious, but a lot of people tend to compromise what may work best for their skin type, skin tone or lifestyle because they think something better just doesn’t exist. I also encourage consumers to ask more of their SPF, [such as delivering] benefits like hydration, blue light protection and more."

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