“I’m Black… I don’t need sunscreen” is an all-too-familiar line many of us have heard time and time again. Fortunately recent studies have debunked this myth, showing that although our melanin gives us some natural protection against sunburn, we are not immune to the many side effects of exposure to the sun. But with this newfound knowledge came another issue: many of the sunscreen brands on the market were not made with us in mind (I’m sure you too have experienced that dreaded white cast).
After experiencing the generational effects of sun damage firsthand and being unable to find sunscreen that was safe and also blended with our melanin, New Orleans native Katonya Breaux (who also happens to be the mother of Frank Ocean) decided to take matters into her own hands with the launch of UnSun Cosmetics. The Black-owned beauty brand provides an all-natural, lightweight sun protectant that is perfectly tinted to blend in with all shades of melanin. We caught up with Katonya to learn more about UnSun and the importance of wearing sunscreen.
Mandy: What influenced you to start UnSun Cosmetics and what was your background prior to launching?
Katonya: I owned a construction company for 20 years and built custom homes after Hurricane Katrina. So, completely different worlds (laughs). I lived in New Orleans because I moved there for school. I was there for 20 years. I finally moved back to LA in 2013. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew that I wasn't going to do construction anymore. I was just burnt out. I happened to be talking to a friend of mine, who had a hair care line, about my frustration with my sunscreen as I had become obsessed with it.
Years prior, when studying the black moles I was getting on my face, I thought they were genetic because all of my aunts and my grandparents had them, so I just assumed it was natural, you know? And when the dermatologist told me that it wasn't genetic, that it was sun damage, I was really shocked because we didn't grow up wearing sunscreen. That wasn't something that my mom bought us. So I began wearing it all the time.
But the chemical-based sunscreens used to make my eyes water, they were just so irritating. And because I didn't know anything, it took me a while to learn about the mineral sunscreen, which did not irritate my skin. However they were so white, they would get in my eyebrows and my hairline, it was really frustrating. So I was talking to my friend about it and asked if he would introduce me to the chemist that did his hair care products. And he did. I sat with the guy and asked him if he could make sunscreen products just for me. And it was literally just for me. I had no idea about the business or anything like that.
We worked on it and after a few months we came out with this really fantastic formulation. I loved the formulation so much that I thought, well maybe I should start a business with this. It really was surprising how many black people did not know that they needed sunscreen. I come from a really big family, there are 11 of us. And all of us, as we age our faces are full of these black moles. So I thought if this happened with our family, surely there are lots of other families in the same situation. And that's how Unsun was born.
Mandy: I'm so glad that you mentioned that. I didn't realize the importance of sunscreen until recently. I still have so many friends and relatives who haven’t caught on yet because they don't think they have to. How important is it for us to wear sunscreen and what are some of the long and short term effects?
Katonya: In the Black community or with women of color in particular, what we have is hyper-pigmentation. We get the moles, scars and little bumps that we pop. The sun makes that scarring permanent. We don't tend to get cancer as much as our white counterparts. The problem is that studies show that while we don't get it as much, we die more. And the reason we die more because skin cancer is not a part of our conversation. Diabetes, high blood pressure, these are the things that we grow up hearing about. So if we get a strange looking mole, we just assume it's nothing harmful. Whereas a white woman who gets the mole will immediately go straight to the dermatologist because she grew up hearing about skin cancer. And so it’ll be caught earlier, where it's the opposite for us. So it's very important that we understand what skin cancer is. And not only that, the vanity of the issue, the premature aging, the dark spots, the moles, all the things that come from the sun that we just want to protect ourselves from. We can wear all the makeup in the world but it's not going to delay aging if we don't protect our skin from the sun’s rays.
Mandy: How much protection does our melanin give us?
Katonya: We have a built in SPF of about ten or eleven. So it's not going to last long. It'll get me to the mailbox or to do something quick but after that I’m as vulnerable as anybody else. So when people say ‘Well my melanin protects,’ there’s some truth to that, but it's so much more limited than we expect.
Mandy: So what makes UnSun different from other similar products?
Katonya: There are a lot of sunscreens on the market but I've really struggled to find sunscreen that works for my complexion. Even when I’d try the tinted sunscreens on the market, it would make my skin gray because it wasn't tinted for my complexion or my undertones. And what happens is, more than 75% of sunscreens on the market use chemical actives, which allows them to blend into our skin. So there are certainly sunscreens out there that will blend with your skin; however when it comes to the chemical sunscreen, there was a big study that Reuters did recently where the FDA is putting on hold right now until further study to investigate all of the sunscreen actives because they're finding them in our bloodstream and in our breast milk. So what we’re doing is providing clean sun protection that won't leave the white residue.
Mandy: Okay, so there are two categories for sunscreen: chemical based and then Mineral based?
Katonya: Yes, and many of the chemicals are the ones they banned in Hawaii and Australia because they’re killing the coral reefs. So we want to put this stuff on our skin? (laughs) It's crazy but we're just learning that it’s something that we need and now we need to fight for products that are safe. Don’t just give me something that pacified my need for not having the white flash back. Give me something that is also safe for me.
Mandy: Wow I'm just shocked that this is something we never knew before. I had no idea that the chemicals in sunscreen were so harmful. Have you seen any major changes in the beauty industry as it relates to black consumers since launching?
Katonya: In sunscreen, yes. And beauty in general because we launched and then about a year and a half later Rihanna's Fenty launched and that just really created an incredibly fantastic space for people to recognize women of color because she did so well and that was her main target demographic. So now other companies are taking note, since we have been this marginalized group of people for so many years while we've been spending billions of dollars. So yes, there's definitely a shift.
Mandy: Now that you’ve mentioned that it’s definitely reminiscent of the shift when it came to black hair care years ago. So what advice would you give other aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking into getting into the beauty industry?
Katonya: Just do your research and stay clean because clean beauty is expanding. It's expected to be a $25 billion industry by 2025. And not even making sure your products are clean for the money aspect of it, just for your sisters and for the environment. Just do your homework, try to be clean. Try to keep us in mind by doing a service for our community that many have not because it's easy to provide products for our community, but we want to make sure that we're getting the best products, the best offers, the best quality.
Mandy: What’s next for UnSun? Where do you see yourself and the company over the next three years?
Katonya: Just continuing to scale up where we're launching some new products every year. We’re going to continue to provide clean products for everyone and eventually we'll expand into skincare and be a full on cosmetics company providing clean products with us in mind.
Mandy: Where can people find and purchase the sunscreen?
Katonya: They can be purchased right now, of course at www.UnSuncosmetics.com as well as Credo Beauty - there are 10 locations nationwide, Target.com and 186 Target stores around the nation. Additionally sold at various online retailers, but those are the three big ones.