Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
We’re supposed to wear sunscreen everyday, but many of us don’t. Despite hearing our parents’ horror stories about slathering themselves in baby oil on the beach (and visibly seeing their sun spots), it hasn’t – excuse the pun – sunk in on a widespread or cultural level.
Female-founded SPF brand HABIT is on a mission to change this. HABIT reminds us that skin care is healthcare. And, never is this more accurate than in chatting about sunscreen, which traditionally contains active drugs and ingredients closely tied to your long term well-being.
Instead of selling a white, oily lotion, HABIT is disrupting the tried-and-true sunscreen model by presenting it in a format you’ll actually use: a refreshing facial mist with a delightful cucumber or floral scent.
Drawing on her background in healthcare, management consulting, private equity, and yes, a beauty brand, founder Tai Adaya sat down with us to discuss the story behind the brand, the future of HABIT, and of course – TikTok fame.
Let’s start with the story. What inspired you to create HABIT?
Tai: In my late twenties, I gravitated towards botox and filler to fit my idea of anti-aging. Being half-Mexican and half-Indian, I never really wore sunscreen because I didn’t burn. I realized that it was crazy behavior to be investing in skin treatments to fix skin problems instead of trying to prevent them in the first place. In research, I discovered that the best place to do this was in sunscreen. If you use anything, it should be sunscreen.
Still, many traditional formulas were unpleasant and outdoor-based. I thought it should be really elevated and elegant to use so that people actually wanted to use it.
So what was your solution?
Tai: Anything in beauty is already super crowded, brand-wise. But sunscreen operates in a white space because only 15% of Americans actually use it – which means millions of people don’t. We wanted to find a way to get to that next 85%. Our challenge was to make it approachable.
When I was working, I had this rose floral face mist at my desk that served as my midday reset. I’d spray it in the early afternoon and it felt like a little self-care ritual. What if, like that, sunscreen was something you enjoyed using? With that, the HABIT spritzer was born.
What challenges and considerations did you face in switching the format?
Tai: The thing about sunscreen is that it contains active drugs, which can be really difficult to work with. We needed to ensure that it was powerful and concentrated enough to be effective in the ways we needed, while still being more of a treat than a chore. We focused on ease of use and reapplication – and of course, we wanted to capture attention.
Keeping function in mind, we designed it to be small enough to take on the go and most of all, we didn’t want it to smell like sunscreen. No. 41, our first mister, smells like geranium, lavender, and rosemary. No. 38 smells like cucumber, with a little lower SPF.
I’m personally a skin care minimalist, so I avoided packing it with trendy, unnecessary ingredients. Instead, I wanted a simple formula that worked. We’re not shy either; we literally printed will prevent wrinkles on the box.
What was your experience of launching HABIT like?
Tai: We were supposed to launch in March 2020. We’d started working on formulas in 2019. When the pandemic hit, we ultimately pushed back our launch date to June. The massive supply chain issues were and have been really tough. We launched with one product, which was never our intention.
While we waited to launch, we created merch. We wanted to do something fashionable to connect with our idea of sunscreen as a barrier between your environment and your skin. We did hats last summer, and now have a sleepwear set to remind our customers of the importance of the basics in a routine.
HABIT got intensely popular on TikTok. Any secrets to your success?
Tai: Sunscreen definitely suffers from its approachability problem, and that’s the entire nature of TikTok – it doesn’t feel super posed. It’s funny, nails that approachability, and allows us to connect with consumers about their daily lives. We’ve been on TikTok since our launch, and it’s definitely our favorite!
What’s your own skin routine like?
Tai: As I said, I’m a skin minimalist. For some, a ten-step routine is relaxing, but that really stresses me out. I like my routine minimal, super concentrated, enjoyable, and elevated.
It’s basically Sunday Riley Good Genes and La Roche-Posay vitamin C serum. (My hot tip: all vitamin C should come in a glass jar or else it will corrode.) I use the Vitamin C under my eyes. And then sunscreen, obviously.
I keep my own face as a blank slate of sorts because I test everything we prototype. I want to have a plain canvas to work on so that I know when I should roll out what we’re working on to other people to beta test.
What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs?
Tai: You can’t be shy. You have to be incredibly tenacious – more so than men – about what you want. It’s hard, but you can’t be afraid or show your fear. So make sure you’re in a place where you’re fully committed to what you’re doing, which is easier if you really, truly care about the cause you’re trying to address.
In general, women are dinged a lot more for things that men don’t get taken down for, and there can be a lot of backlash against female founders. Perception of what you’re doing can be just as difficult to grapple with as the actual process.
Speaking of women in business, how have you crafted HABIT with gender in mind? Has it influenced your positioning as a beauty versus medical product?
Tai: I’m so glad you asked that question because I think everyone wants to say that they’re at the intersection of beauty and health, but very few people are. We’re really interested in the democratization of health, and the initial idea was very gender neutral. We wanted to emphasize that sunscreen was medicine.
In our research phase, we looked through dozens of healthcare startup and telehealth websites and I noted a certain kind of sterility to them: similar coloring, bland text. Why did healthcare have to feel different? It should be interesting, beautiful, fun. It should be approachable.
I’ve worked both with prescription drugs and on a makeup line, so I’d like to think we have the best of each. We wanted to embody a feeling of being right there with you throughout the process of caring for your skin. Now, beauty and health are more closely tied together in categories online, which makes it easier to navigate.
We’re excited to have led the charge there and have widened the market.
Now for a question we love to ask our Quality Makers. What does quality mean to you?
Tai: I definitely have the philosophy of fewer, nicer things. What actually changes your day and makes you better? What’s necessary versus what’s hoarding? I think about what makes my soul feel weighed down. For me, quality is the stuff that makes you feel lighter and actually helps you.
What’s next for HABIT? Any exciting collabs or opportunities?
Tai: I’m not sure I’m allowed to speak to all that much, but we have a very busy year this year. With our unique take on sunscreen, we’re also just excited to get more products to market as supply chain issues hopefully clear.
As the sun peeks out and the summer warms up, you’ll need it even more.
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