Since sunscreen was invented 83 years ago, the connotation of the word has changed from a goopy white cream, often yielded by an overprotective mom in the summer, to the pleasant-smelling, anti-aging necessity found in almost everyone’s beauty bag. 

“People associate sunscreen with the beach or an outdoor activity or preventing sunburns, and that’s only a tiny part of sunscreen’s story,” said Tai Adaya, founder of Habit, a new-age skin-care company that emerged in June of 2020.

Traditionally, young consumers are not the target audience for sunscreen brands. But with the narrative that sunscreen can serve as the best anti-aging product, sunscreen brands are eager to jump onto youth-oriented social platforms like TikTok. Using a combination of scientifically verified yet humorous content, brands like Habit, Tula and even heritage brand Banana Boat are seeing success.

“[We have to] break through to that bigger audience that’s less worried about the beach and sunburns, and is worried about skin aging,” said Adaya.

To flip the current anti-aging narrative of investing in Botox, in favor of taking proactive measures like using sunscreen, Habit has leaned into TikTok, which Adaya said “has driven a younger audience.” Its audience there are women of color in their “late teens to 40s,” which Adaya said is the brand’s “fastest-growing market.” Habit’s debut SPF product, which turned 1-year-old on June 15, is called No. 41 Mister and sells for $30. 

Habit positions itself as honest and educational, by trying to debunk anti-aging myths using its TikTok account. For example, it features videos “showing people, through a UV lens, what an application [of sunscreen] looks like,” said Adaya. The global anti-aging market is predicted to increase from $192 billion in 2019 to $421 billion by 2030, according to P&S Intelligence’s latest report.

Adaya said that humorous content performs the best, in terms of engagement, and that Habit has already amassed nearly 1 million likes on TikTok across its 226 videos. Habit’s most-viewed TikTok, which has 3.1 million views, is titled “Awkward moments: SPF edition.” It consists of juxtaposed clips of Christina Choi, Habit’s social media marketing content manager, wearily reapplying a traditional sunscreen that yields a white-caste, versus her effortlessly applying No. 41 Mister.

“We made the strategic choice to have someone be the face [of Habit’s TikTok],” said Adaya.

As a result of Habit’s viral TikToks and pandemic-related supply chain issues, the No. 41 Mister has sold out three times since its release and was only in stock for 43% of the last year, she said. As a result, Habit began sending out a “behind the scenes” email series for pre-order customers, which allows them to see how the sunscreen is made and often refers back to Habit’s TikTok. Habit also released SPF-themed bucket hats for purchase on habit.com after a TikTok-induced sellout of the sun-care product.

“Bucket hats fall in the umbrella of sun protection,” said Adaya. “We wanted to make them in cute colors [because] our audience is very fun [and] they like color.” The hats, which feature “flirty sayings” like “Hey hottie wear SPF,’ attempt to be fun while maintaining Habit’s underlying message of promoting sunscreen use. 

Other brands are trying to find their own special narrative within the social media ecosystem. Tula, founded by Dr. Raj Roshini in 2014, attempts to stand out in the sun-care industry with its probiotic extract-powered SPF products, as probiotic extracts are a hallmark of its brand ingredient portfolio. Tula has shied away from “anti-aging” terminology, choosing to instead focus on “ageless” skin positivity and clean ingredients.

On July 7, Tula unveiled a second sun-care product, a mineral sunscreen fluid with SPF 30 called Mineral Magic. The brand has a core customer average age of 32, but also over-indexes with Gen Z, said Savannah Sachs, Tula CEO. On its product information pages and in social media posts, Tula promotes Mineral Magic’s antioxidant protection and protection against broad-spectrum UVA/UVB, blue light and pollution damage. The brand also calls out its buzzworthy ingredients like wild butterfly ginger and red algae, for oil control.

“Millennial and Gen-Z customers are looking for powerful and clean skin-care actives in every step of their self-care routine,” said Sachs. “We want to produce and offer products that are not just sunscreen, but they’re also skin care.”

Like Habit, Tula is on TikTok. It’s gained over 100,000 followers in the past year, said Sachs. One of Tula’s most-viewed TikToks, titled “Skin Quiz How To,” exemplifies the type of content that this “skin-care-savvy” audience typically gravitates toward. The video, which has 1.2 million views, guides users through a quiz on tula.com to find their “completely personalized skin-care routine.”

Tula prioritizes “transparency and educating the customer around ingredients.” As such, the brand has used trending sounds on TikTok to promote the skin-care-first benefits of its Protect & Glow SPF, which was its first SPF product, launched in April of 2020. For example, a TikTok that Tula posted on June 11 and features Protect & Glow, uses an edit of Mac DeMarco’s “My Kind of Woman,” which has been featured in 64,800 videos on TikTok. The post yielded an increase of 119,000 views on the brand’s TikTok page. 

Tula’s latest omnichannel marketing campaign launched on July 7 and will be available in brick-and-mortar stores like Ulta on August 2. “It’s focused on the powerful skin-care-first ingredients and the clinical results,” said Sachs. According to Sachs, the brand sent Mineral Magic to over 600 influencer partners across multiple social media platforms. About one-third of Tula’s DTC revenue is through influencer affiliate marketing.

But even heritage sun-care brands are trying to find ways to court young consumers. Banana Boat, founded in 1992, has a target audience that differs from that of Tula and Habit, though Gen Z and millenials represent a large and growing percentage of sunscreen consumers. Banana Boat markets its SPF products to “the whole family” and the idea that “sunscreen is all about protecting the fun on Earth,” according to Anastasia Tobias, marketing director of Banana Boat. But the family-focused brand has not neglected the power of TikTok as a marketing tool. In July of 2020, Banana Boat worked with Allison Holker, dancer and social media influencer, who “created videos to show families how to protect themselves through fun and dance,” on TikTok and Instagram, while “reinforcing the importance of using SPF,” said Tobias.

“We’ve leaned into this space of having fun through exercise for some time now,” she said.