The sunscreen boom is upon us.
In 2020, the global value of sun care products was $10.7 billion. Already a staggering figure, that number is projected to grow by 4% each year until 2028, according to market analysts at Grand View Research. By the end of the decade, the sector is expected to reach upwards of $14 billion.
The growth is thanks, at least in part, to a shift in the sunscreen market. Gone are the days of a sticky white lotion, destined to leave its mark on clothes and give skin an unattractive shine. Now, sunscreen formulas are fun — and designed to work for everyday life, not just the two weeks of the year you’re on vacation.
SPF is now available as sprays, brush-on powders, whipped mousses and roller sticks — all the easier to make wearing it a daily habit. Sun “patches” warn SPF wearers when it’s time to reapply. Formulations are skin-specific too, with products for acne sufferers, allergy prone complexions and darker skin tones (where the brand Black Girl Sunscreen, founded in 2016, leads the charge).
“Sunscreens not only became a norm, but now they’re dynamic, they’re fun, they’re personalized,” said Dr. Luke Maxfield, a board-certified dermatologist and one of the doctors behind the popular YouTube account Doctorly.
They’re big business, too. Prestige suncare brands such as Supergoop and Coola have become status symbols and can command premium pricing. Millennial skin care favorites — Paula’s Choice ($34), Glossier ($25), Drunk Elephant ($34) — have all created their own luxury daily sunscreens. Celebrities are in the market as well; tennis star Naomi Osaka and musician Pharrell have released their own products, bringing A-list swagger to a sector that was once more of a reluctant safety measure than a regular part of a morning ritual.
Dr. Naana Boakye, a board-certified dermatologist, credits social media for amplifying the message about the importance of protecting skin from the sun’s rays, which can cause premature aging and skin cancer.
“We are always on our phones, we’re on (Instagram), TikTok, and we have influencers and (dermatologists) pushing the sunscreen message,” Boakye said in a phone interview. “So I think a lot of younger individuals have picked up on it, as well as men.”
Dr. Abigail Waldman, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, said over the last three to five years, she’s noticed a change in her clients’ behavior. Whereas in the past her older female patients were the most likely to use daily sunscreen, now people in their teens and 20s are wearing some form of SPF regularly, alongside older male patients, too.
“I think there is a more pervasive media representation of (the benefits of) wearing sunscreen, like preventing aging and preventing skin cancer,” Waldman said in a phone interview. “It’s a message that’s out there.”
Maxfield agreed, saying he noticed an increase in the language around the importance of SPF use on social media in 2020.
“That was a huge win for dermatologists, because … we have struggled to communicate that importance to the general public, especially younger individuals,” Maxfield said. “Social media managed to marry that conversation and make it relatable.”
Research supports this. In a study published in 2021, scientists found that more children in middle and high school were wearing sunscreen, a trend researchers partially attributed to social media.
Supergoop — a sunscreen brand known for products like Unseen Sunscreen and Glowscreen — also attributed the rise in daily SPF use to both the increased education around its benefits and the innovative SPF products that now exist. But Britany LeBlanc, chief marketing officer at Supergoop, noted that the brand aims to make their sun protection products fun to use, in a move that feels distinct from sunscreens of the past.
“We spend a lot of our time dreaming up new and innovative formulas that you’ll truly want to wear!” LeBlanc said in an emailed statement. “When we take them to market, we also want to make sure that the experience of wearing them is fun — we know that there are serious risks to the sun, and our mission is ultimately to end the epidemic of skin cancer, but we always seek to educate and inspire, rather than use scare tactics, to encourage daily sunscreen use.”
Supergoop has made their name off wearable sunscreens suitable for the every day, but they’re not the only ones. Australian brand Ultra Violette has become a global phenomenon thanks to its dedication to creating so-called “skinscreen” (“skincare-style sunscreens that aren’t a chore to wear,” according to beauty business website Beauty Independent) not to mention pitch-perfect irreverent online tutorials such as “How to wear SPF over (and under) make-up without hating life.”
Larger skin care trends among youth have also played a significant role in sunscreen’s rise. Even teenagers have turned to various serums and formulas in an attempt to preserve their youthful skin. Meanwhile, young influencers on TikTok parade their multi-step skin care routines, with many featuring products like retinoids and AHAs, celebrated for their role in minimizing signs of aging. And though they can be beneficial, these products also make skin more sensitive to UV rays — making SPF even more necessary.
Still, no serum or specialized cream is as important as sunscreen, which many people are becoming increasingly aware of as skin care becomes more trendy, Maxfield said. Using every single high-end serum and cream but forgetting SPF is, frankly, a waste of time, he said.
Whether the boom is fueled by a growing preoccupation with preventing premature aging, concerns over skin cancer or simply social pressure to buy into the “funscreen” movement, that regular SPF application is becoming a daily part of many people’s grooming regimes can only be a good thing.
As for what consumers should look for in a sunscreen, it largely depends on individual needs.
In terms of protection, there isn’t a huge difference between expensive and inexpensive products, Waldman said, though consumers should look for the term “broad spectrum,” meaning that the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
Both Boakye and Waldman stressed the necessity of an SPF of at least 30, noting only incremental differences in benefits beyond that number and recommended daily sunscreen use is also important for maximum skin health, even if you’re stuck inside.
UV rays can impact skin through windows, Maxfield said, and Boakye noted that blue light from our phone and computer screens can also increase hyperpigmentation in skin. But for those only worried about minimizing the risk of skin cancer, Maxfield recommended avoiding peak hours outside when the sun is at its strongest and applying sunscreen every two hours while outdoors.
Beyond sun protection, Boakye also looks for active ingredients like green tea, niacinamide, and vitamin E in sunscreen, which can help against issues like puffiness, fine lines and hyperpigmentation. Melanin-rich skin tones also tend to be dry, she noted, so consumers may benefit from a product that moisturizes as well as protects. Still, these properties may also increase the price tag.
Regardless of the type — or the brand, or the price, or even the form it comes in — the most important thing people can do is to actually consistently wear sunscreen. Your skin, according to the dermatologists, will thank you.