For those of us prone to painful sunburns and the skin cancers that can come next, sunscreen is a daily consideration, and finding the right one can be quite a chore. Fears abound about what some of the mass-produced, chemical-based sunscreens may be doing to the ocean — and to ourselves — while the natural-leaning scene is dominated by zinc oxide recipes. But I’ve never loved the creamy white sheen that’s often left behind, and that’s an even louder complaint from people with darker skin than me, who’ve long craved a clean sunscreen that goes on clear.
This is what the Santa Barbara–based skincare company Sonrei is now delivering. Though not the first translucent gel sunscreen company, Sonrei — which is vegan, reef-friendly, fragrance-free, and loaded with beneficial vitamins and moisturizers — is wearing diversity, sustainability, and skin health on their shoulders like few others. Though just two years old, the company — whose name is the Spanish word for “smile” but double entendres well as “sunray” — is already catching a lot of national media attention for its BIPOC appeal, appearing in beauty magazines such as Glamour, Allure, and Vogue, and even being talked about on Good Morning America twice.
“How can we craft something that can appeal to as many people as possible, and continue that mission and philosophy for future products?” explained cofounder Dustin Holt of the company’s driving motivation. Leaning on about a decade of experience working for the international dermatology company behind CeraVe, Holt, who moved to Santa Barbara in 2012, believed that launching a startup in the very competitive and highly regulated sunscreen sector would be the wisest move.
“I felt that there was an opportunity to be disruptive in the sunscreen gel market,” said Holt. “If we can get a foothold in a tough category, it’s a good approach.”
Sonrei’s cofounders, including Holt’s Brazilian wife, Andreza Andrade Holt, and Kaya and Tejash Patel, who are of Indian descent and live in Chicago, started talking about this idea about five years ago. By 2017, Sonrei was working with its own team of chemists — that’s rare, according to Holt, as many skincare companies just repackage white-label products — and in June 2019, they released the first two products: Sea Clearly 30 SPF and 50 SPF.
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“Santa Barbara inspired the packaging,” said Holt of the ocean, hills, and mountains visible on the tubes. “That’s from living here.”
They’ve since released three “mineral gel” products that use zinc oxide: a tinted version at 45 SPF and then two “Clearly Zinq” at 60 SPF, one of which is packaged for kids. Even those go on much more clearly than the usual zinc oxide preparations. “It’s difficult to work with,” said Holt of dealing with the zinc. “We applied what we learned in our gel.”
On a recent rafting trip down the Green River in Colorado and Utah, I relied on the Sea Clearly 50 for my entire sunscreen needs. The gel goes on thickly — one friend called it “snot-like” — but applies completely clear with a pleasantly silky sheen. It worked so well that I wish I’d used less and caught a bit more of a tan, even when applying just twice a day while constantly being soaked by river water and baking in the sun for eight-hour stretches.
While the United States Food & Drug Administration only runs sunscreen tests for 40 and 80 minutes — which Sonrei passed with ease — Holt also sent his products for testing in Australia as well, where the analyses last two and four hours. Sonrei succeeded, said Holt, explaining, “It passed SPF 50 with four-hour water resistance in the toughest sunscreen market in the world.”
Sonrei is slowly building up retail accounts, but most sales go through the website, where the 3.4-ounce bottles sell for $35-$40 each. The plan is to ramp up more products in the years to come, but always with the consumer at front of mind.
“It’s not just about making money — we are for-profit, but that’s not it. It’s about positively touching lives,” said Holt, who learned a lot about the skincare market from his previous corporate life. “I don’t even worry about that,” he said of the competition. “If you can just solve a problem for a certain segment, hopefully you can get some momentum there and build the brand. There are a lot of right skincare products for the right person.”