The Natural Sunscreen Revolution - Founder Story
By Karl Roos - December 2, 2022
Suntribe develop worry-free sunscreens. In essence this means that we only use ingredients that are absolutely safe for humans and the environment. The story of Suntribe started back in the early 2010’s when I lived in Australia.
In Australia I saw people for the first time in my life that actually cared and talked about sunscreen, and I quickly learned that there’s “good sunscreen” and “bad sunscreen”. My friends were very concerned about the ocean and its reefs and the discussion basically boiled down to: This sunscreen harms the reef and this one doesn’t. This motivated me to change my habits and actually care about which sunscreens I used. Happily I learned what zinc actually was, that it was the most common base component in the good (mineral) sunscreens. That it doesn’t need to make you white like the lifeguards I always imagined when I heard zinc. And that the bad (chemical) sunscreens actually harm humans as much as the coral reefs. One powerful example is that common sunscreen chemicals are actually one of the largest (3rd largest after alcohol and cigarettes) contributors to male infertility. Needless to say, I was sold on the idea of using the good sunscreen for the rest of my life.
Two years later I moved to Portugal to work as a surf teacher. My first priority was to get myself some of the good sunscreen, and boy was it a nightmare when I, after looking in every store in the Algarve, came up empty handed. After a few weeks of using the bad sunscreen I couldn’t take letting my Australian friends (and the ocean) down anymore. Luckily this is where the random nature of the universe stepped in and set me on the path that would lead to Suntribe’s creation. As my ranting about sunscreen and how displeased I was became more intense, I ended up stumbling on a person who told me that I needed not to worry. Apparently, it’s possible to make some kind of sunscreen yourself, right here in the kitchen, he told me.
Said and done, after a quick shopping trip we ended up in his little kitchen and started mixing. Fascinated that what we had made actually looked similar to the good sunscreen I bought in Australia we took it to the beach for a test. Lo and behold, it also worked just as good as the ones I had bought in Australia. Although I admit it was nothing close to perfect (sometimes the zinc turned yellow, sometimes it was hard as a rock, and sometimes it had huge clumps in it) I knew that I was on the track of something good. When we had made something that was fairly stable I started using it during my surf teaching, and it was an instant success among the students. Everyone wanted the coconut smelling white paste rather than the fancy stick in the plastic packaging with chemical UV-filters. The appeal of the clean and natural connected perfectly with the attitude of the surfer and the idea of protecting oneself and the ocean.
The first sunscreen I made in the kitchen in Portugal was the formula which was later to become Suntribe’s first product, the Face & Sport Zinc Sunscreen. This formula has 3 ingredients and it works fantastically, it lasts for years and you never get sunburned. I was so fascinated. The alternative in the stores at that time looked the same, worked the same, but had 27 ingredients and 10 of them were listed in the EU chemicals portal as harmful for humans or the environment.
With this first formula I returned to Sweden and to the university to get help in making this commercially viable. Here I found my partners, Hampus and Julia, and we started the journey without delay. With the help of the university labs and chemists we fine tuned the formula and produced our first “real” products. We applied for grants to do SPF tests (which are very expensive it turns out) and we started thinking about how to make everyone else see the beauty in our 3 ingredient sunscreen formula too.
Turns out that was harder said than done. We called, we e-mailed, we created fancy PDF’s, nothing worked. People simply did not see the appeal or understand the difference between what was already there. Ultimately we did 1 sale like that, and then we decided to change strategy. We packed all our products into the car, and we drove down to the French summer on the South West surf coast. Here, we went from store to store and with our limited French we introduced the product and brand. Finally things started working out. In the real world, people could see the appeal more clearly, could literally smell, feel and try the difference between what was there. We spent the whole summer down in France and we sold out our stock twice. At one point our co-founder Hampus had to recruit his family back in Sweden to help him label newly produced products after we, to our great surprise, found ourselves with nothing left after just a few weeks of sales.
Five years forward and Suntribe is now a worry-free sunscreen alternative available in almost every EU country. We’ve expanded the worry-free concept to include both heavy and visible zinc sunscreens for sports to light and invisible formulations for the face and entire body. Apart from working as well as traditional sunscreens the important part for us is that all our products are as purposeful as they can be. This means you can find our justification for every single ingredient, packaging choice and even the warehouse we ship from. We believe in transparency and that as a user of Suntribe you can feel confident simply through knowing. We don’t like the old cosmetics way of using large quantities of ingredients with little justification or explanation, so we do it differently. Find out more about our ingredients and production here.
One of the great challenges of the sunscreen industry these days is greenwashing. There is a lot of misleading communication by large cosmetic companies and it makes it even harder to find “good” sunscreens. For example you can see several companies marketing that they are reef safe, and don’t contain harmful ingredients for the ocean, but then they do contain ingredients that are harmful for humans. Or that they are sensitive for the skin and suitable for babies, but then they are harmful for the reefs. The powerful symbolism of claims such as reef safe and eco certifications are being used to lure consumers into a false sense of security. When in fact many major cosmetics corporations will not meaningfully change their formulations for the benefit of human or environmental health if it’s too expensive. That’s why we didn’t see any shift towards mineral sunscreens from any major cooperation until regulatory changes forced the disuse of some specific ingredients. Even though that ingredient had already been proven in peer reviewed research to be harmful. This is why Suntribe does its own research and vets all our ingredients across the academic literature.
The opportunity for good sunscreen is growing at the same pace as the conventional sunscreens are being questioned and regulated. Already today we see several countries and regions placing total bans on some common chemical sunscreen ingredients. The combination of the population getting informed about chemical sunscreen with the technological development of mineral sunscreen is what leads to the opportunities in the market. Traditional mineral formulas were thick, oily and not as attractive from a user point of view. However as the market grows the formulations become better and better and today we have good sunscreen formulas which feel and work just as good to use as the bad ones. I believe it’s only a question of 5-10 years until close to half of all sunscreens on the market are user-friendly mineral based sunscreen formulas.
“If you find yourself in a balance and spending your time in a way that you think is meaningful, then usually the money will come as well.”
– Karl Roos
The reason why I think Suntribe worked for me as an entrepreneur was because I fully understood and was passionate about what I was trying to achieve. I am a user of the products myself, and I have seen coral reef destruction and understood the harms of conventional sunscreens. This means I could convey the message in a way which other people could connect with and understand.
I think the simple fact that my lifestyle is closely related to my business makes it a lot easier to persevere even in those trying first couple of years. It should be noted that Suntribe did not provide any income for any of the founders during the first three years. So at that point, you need strong forces to keep you going. The motivation we get from doing a business for other meaningful reasons than money is one of the greatest assets of an entrepreneur in the start-up phase. For myself, Suntribe allowed me to justify living in the tropics, to justify spending my time meeting fascinating people, studying fascinating things, taking beautiful images and videos. Then in the end, if you find yourself in a balance and spending your time in a way that you think is meaningful, then usually the money will come as well.
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