Seeing Sunscreen in a New Light The cultural shifts & semiotics of sunscreen
Ancient civilizations used a range of natural formulations to protect skin from the sun’s rays, but “sunblock” as we know it was formally invented in 1938. Since then, a profusion of SPF products have launched, both amplifying awareness of the need for sun protection and often generating confusion around it – how often to apply SPF, the extent to which it prevents tanning, etc.
We’ve used our Culture x AI social data collection platform to analyse 1000s of mentions of ‘sunscreen’ and ‘sunblock’ on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and TikTok across the UK and US. Combining social data with cultural analysis, we can draw out some clear themes and shifts in the sunscreen category – shifts that illuminate a vast amount about personal care more broadly.
From anxious prevention to choice treatment
Given that sunscreen (or sunblock, if you prefer) is a way of protecting skin from damage and risks of skin cancer, it makes sense that many sunscreen packs embody semi-medicinal cues.
Several SPF packs design cues emphasise their clinical and scientific foundations. Garnier, Nivea, La Roche Posay all have white backgrounds, evoking the lab settings and precision behind the product formula. The inclusion of blue with white amplifies these associations, reminding us of medical expertise (the NHS, toothpastes, pharmacies).
In the case of Riemann, a diagram of concentric circles evokes both the hot sun and the pain-targeting Nurofen. This, combined with language around “serious” suncare, implicitly frames the sun as an intense health risk to be feared.
Much of the online conversation around sunscreen focuses on such risks, seeking to familiarise people with the role of SPF in preventing melanoma. We know more about skin cancer than ever, and online communities are sharing knowledge around sunscreen that can help others take care of their skin. These supportive exchanges are not only health-focused, but also skincare-routine based.
While skin health is the strongest reason for SPF, much of the online conversation has centred on the skin-aging effects of UV rays. For those seeking anti-ageing skincare, SPF is by no means a summer product. As such, many emergent, skincare-oriented brands have moved away from pack designs & comms overtly referencing sunlight (circles, yellow, gold), instead framing their products as evergreen routine skincare choices (image-free packs; straightforward ingredient descriptors; comms showing natural ingredients).
Given sunblock’s notorious veil of paste on the skin, many SPF brands focus on the discretion of product texture. While SPF products shouldn’t be mixed with moisturisers, they should “feel like a moisturiser,” as one reviewer puts it. Garnier’s SPF emphasises “Invisible” protection, while US brand Coppertone claims: “OIL FREE: WON’T CAUSE BREAKOUTS.” These brands centre their products around negatives – e.g. invisible rather than visible, won’t rather than will.
More emergent sunscreen brands are placing a positive emphasis on the ease with which they can be applied and absorbed. They emphasise being “ultra-fine”, or as one newer brand is called ‘Clear As Day’. Korean beauty brand Pestlo has launched a Sun Essence, its name suggesting the gentle lightness of the product’s texture. Meanwhile, Habit is a spray-on SPF, celebrated online for enabling application & re-application without touching your face. “Habit” suggests a frequent, effortless ritual, and the brand’s online comms & descriptions of ‘top notes: rose; secondary notes: lavender’ draw more from beauty, wellness and perfume than conventional SPF codes.
Sun Protection meets Ecological Protection
Recent heatwaves have brought conversations about the climate crisis to the fore. When it comes to SPF, brands have dominantly focused on imagery of sun-soaked landscapes and relaxed bliss, with little attention given to environmental issues. Looking at conversations around SPF online, we can see increasing consciousness around the ecological impact of SPF packaging itself. Customers are looking for reef-safe options, avoiding harmful ingredients such as oxybenzone and octinoxate – which are both seen to contribute to coral bleaching.
3 key takeouts for brands:
- Across categories, consumers know what they’re looking for on ingredients lists. They’re willing to do their research into scientific compounds, and the impact ingredients have for their skin and for the planet. How can your brand make this kind of knowledge both accessible and engaging?
- Emergent SPF brands avoid language around “sustainability”, in favour of exact specifics around “reef safe” ingredients and information about aquatic ecosystems. Brands can communicate with this clarity around ecological impact across categories, as well as giving super-clear instructions on how to recycle different pack elements where more than one material is used.
- More and more, brands across categories are positioning themselves as lifestyle partners, and tapping into the aesthetic trends of wellness. Some brands manage this with originality and relevance, but drawing on these trends (without understanding their underlying cultural meanings) risks appearing repetitive and inauthentic. How can your brand stay in touch with online trends and be culturally meaningful – without jumping on a viral bandwagon?
Katrina Russell, Associate Director