Katonya Breaux was in her 40s when she discovered both that sun damage doesn’t discriminate and that, in the big sunscreen market, there were no available mineral sunscreens designed with her melanin-rich skin tone in mind. Today, Katonya is the founder of Unsun Cosmetics, which creates clean sunscreen in tints that work for all women.
When I was in my early 40s, I started noticing these little black moles popping up on my face. I thought they were genetic because all the older women in my family have them, but theirs began showing up in their late 60s. Mine were developing much earlier.
I went to the dermatologist to see what I could do to slow them down and was surprised to learn that the dark spots weren’t genetic moles. They were the result of sun damage. At the time, I honestly believed that Black people couldn’t have sun damage, that we weren't affected by the sun. Can you imagine expecting to grow older with moles all over your face, and then finding out that if you do this one easy thing, you won't get them? Clearly, I quickly became obsessed with sunscreen.
I went straight to Walgreens and bought whatever was available. Almost immediately, I realized that the chemical sunscreens really irritated my skin. So, I started to do some research. Why is this burning my eyes and bothering my skin? Are there options out there that won't do this?
I discovered mineral sunscreen, which didn't irritate my eyes or skin at all. But the only options I could find left a white residue that made me look like a ghost. It was a horrible experience. I went on the hunt for a tinted sunscreen that would solve this problem and realized that not only had I previously thought Black people didn’t need sunscreen, but apparently everyone else in the industry had assumed that too. Based on the options available, it was clear that a woman with my skin tone wasn't ever considered in the process of making tinted sunscreen.
A friend of mine owned a hair care line, and I called him one day and said “Hey, can you hook me up with your chemist? I want to ask him to make me some sunscreen.” My intention was to make something literally just for me — having a cosmetic brand never even crossed my mind. He made a formula for me, and the first thing that struck me when I tried it was how well it would work on all the different skin tones of the women in my large family.
It took me a little while, but eventually I thought that I should build a brand around this. Part of the business would be educating women of color on the importance of sunscreen for all of us. And that's what I did. Unsun Cosmetics launched in 2016 with one product with the goal of building a brand based on inclusivity that would cover literally all skin tones and not make anyone feel the way that I had felt.
It's been so ingrained in all of us that the lighter your skin, the more you need to pay attention to sun exposure. The flip side of that messaging is that if you have darker skin, you don’t need to worry about the sun. That’s a horrible myth because even though people with darker skin tones don't get skin cancer as often as our white counterparts, our mortality rates are higher. If a white woman sees a mole, the first thing that comes to her mind is, “Oh my god, I have to check to make sure this isn’t skin cancer.” If a Black person sees a mole, we often think, “Oh, what’s that weird thing? Probably just a regular mole.” By the time many of us finally decide to get it checked out, it can be too late.
This false messaging starts early. Growing up, I went on camping trips as a Girl Scout. Our camp leaders were putting sunscreen on all the little white Girl Scouts, but not on me. When you see this behavior around you, the information comes to you directly or indirectly that “Okay, that product is not for me.” That’s why the melanoma mortality rates are higher for Black people — because no one's on the lookout for skin cancer. It's a disservice to our community, and it must change.
I was the first Black woman-owned sunscreen brand on the market, especially in the clean skincare space. And it was a little bit of a struggle initially. It was hard to get store placement because the industry didn't feel like there was a market for Black women. In the past six years, that's changed so much, especially since the murder of George Floyd. Black-owned brands have had more store placement since that happened, and it’s made people – especially the beauty industry – look at everything differently. Black women spend so much money annually on beauty products, and it’s crazy that we continued to spend money before even though there wasn't anything really tailored to us. Now that’s changing, and it's changing a lot.
I still have the same number of moles that I had when I first started this journey, but it’s been empowering to be able to stop them from progressing. I take other measures as well. I did a sound bath at the beach a couple weeks ago, and I wore my sunscreen, of course, but I also had a visor that completely covered my face.
I hope I can help people understand that the sun does not discriminate. We are all truly susceptible to skin cancer and sun damage. And, now, there’s also something each of us can do about it.
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