After returning from a summer trip to Wasaga Beach with some friends in 2019, Stephanie Tien’s scalp felt like it was on fire. The one area of her body where she hadn’t applied sunscreen was severely sunburnt.
Knowing this was a common problem, Tien and her friend Kristina Knox immediately partnered up to create a sustainable sun protection brand called Arbre.
“We realized that there isn’t really a product that can protect your scalp…other than wearing a hat…you don’t really want to put normal sunscreen on your head,” said Tien in a video interview with the Toronto Observer. “We thought, ‘why don’t we just make a product for it?'”
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer, but it is also highly preventable if people adhere to sun safety practices. One of the leading causes of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation produced by the sun and indoor tanning equipment.
The Government of Canada website says, people can reduce this risk by following the following recommendations: Checking the UV Index, wearing sunglasses, covering skin with clothing, limiting time in the sun, avoiding tanning beds, and applying broad-spectrum and water-resistant sunscreens with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
Since winning a couple of pitch competitions, the Arbre team has been busy formulating their first product — a mineral-based SPF powder that can be applied to the scalp as a dry shampoo.
“We’re aiming for at least SPF 45, but we won’t know until we do the testing,” Tien said.
From the initial stages, Arbre was envisioned as a sustainable company and both co-founders are committed to using reef-safe ingredients.
Sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone and octinoxate contribute to the declining health of corals. Arbre plans to use only mineral-based ingredients that won’t cause coral bleaching.
“We wouldn’t want to put something into the world that is going to further damage our environment,” Tien said. “So, we’re really focusing on that, not only with the ingredients that we’re going to use in our product, but right now we’re talking a lot about packaging, too.”
Current market for sunscreens
After experiencing products that do not cater to all skin and hair colours, the co-founders have made inclusivity a business priority as well.
“We just think that there’s a big gap, and especially for Kristina and I being women of colour, a lot of times these products aren’t made with us in mind,” Tien said. “And we think that there’s an opportunity to change that.”
Arbre aims to target all hair types and colours by creating two different versions of their scalp sunscreen — one for darker hair colours — another for lighter.
Since both co-founders graduated with degrees in science — Tien also just received her master’s degree in applied clinical pharmacology — they didn’t know much about starting a business.
They had a clear idea for their company but they did not know how to piece together all of the requirements so they joined an incubator at the University of Toronto Mississauga to help guide them.
“When we joined ICUBE, I think that was like a huge game-changer for us because they had structured programming to walk us through all the things to set up a business,” Tien said. “It really got us far into setting up the foundation.”
While COVID-19 affected Arbre due to the lab restrictions and the inability to complete testing, it opened new doors in terms of options.
“The pandemic gave us a lot of extra time to be able to start this company and a lot of opportunities that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Knox said. “For example, because a lot of accelerators were now doing their programs online, we were able to join.”
Educating people about sun protection
While their product is still in formulating stages, neither co-founders are wasting any time. Through the launch of their blog, The Grove, and an Instagram account, they are trying to raise awareness about skin cancer.
What started as a platform to disseminate research and educate the general public about sun protection soon became a solid marketing strategy.
“We’re building a community of people who are learning from us,” Tien said. “They learn to trust us so that when we actually have a product, they’re probably more likely to purchase it from us.”
With the help of social media, Arbre co-creators also try to debunk many myths.
“A lot of people that we found through our social media, they just don’t really know a lot about sun protection in general,” said Knox. “So that’s what we’ve been pushing to educate with our Instagram account.”