Winnie Harlow on Creating Sunscreen for All, Inspired by Her Jamaican Roots

The model, who has spoken widely about her vitiligo, poured her own experience with sun sensitivity into her debut SPF range, Cay Skin. It’s all about a healthy glow: “I want to put the sun in the bottle.”  

Born in Canada to Jamaican parents, the model is accustomed to toggling between warm weather and cold. (During the pandemic she joined the westward migration to Los Angeles, signaling her preference for backyard pool life.) The constant throughout, no matter the season, is a protective dose of SPF. “I just remember running on the beaches, and my dad slathering sunscreen on my skin with his rough hands from being a mechanic,” Harlow recalls of her childhood visits to the Caribbean. At age four, she was diagnosed with vitiligo, a condition that disrupts the melanin production in certain regions of the skin, leaving them especially vulnerable to the sun. Her unique pigmentation became a topic of conversation in 2014, during a turn on America’s Next Top Model, which jumpstarted a career that has included marquee runway appearances (Marc Jacobs, Schiaparelli), fashion editorials, and a TED Talk about evolving beauty norms.  

Welcome to Artist Spotlight #79 series on my blog.

But it wasn’t until 2018, while on a modeling job in the Bahamas, that the seed for Harlow’s new beauty brand, Cay Skin, was born. “I was shooting from sunup to sundown both days, and on set no one wanted me to reapply sunscreen because of that blue-silver shine that isn’t very complimentary to any skin tone, especially to darker skin tones,” the model recalls. A serious flare-up followed. “I had to have doctors come to my hotel to give me injections for pain and inflammation.” 

The experience reinforced the idea that there was plenty more room in the sunscreen space, particularly with inclusivity in mind. Cay Skin—the name nods to the landscapes of Caribbean islands—arrives today with four products to suit different preferences and needs. For fans of mineral sunscreen, there’s an ultra-sheer SPF 55 with zinc oxide, alongside skin-nourishing squalene and sea moss. (The butter-yellow tint comes from plant-derived antioxidants.) Harlow’s daily staple is Isle Glow SPF 45, which sets a trio of broad-spectrum chemical filters within a luminous base. “I wear this under makeup, but I also wear this insteadof makeup because it just adds such a beautiful glow,” she says. Meanwhile, the SPF 30 body oil delivers the throwback appeal of a 1980s tanning mist with modern protection. 

Everyone always forgets about the lips,” Harlow says of the last product, a plush SPF 30 balm that avoids the chalky texture of other formulas. “I wanted something that was going to be hydrating and nutrient-rich, but also protecting the lips.”  

As Harlow picks up a couple of the tubes, it’s clear that the palette of the packaging—pale peach and chestnut brown—isn’t just about good-taste neutrals. In fact, the colors are practically Pantone-matched to her skin tones: a visible reminder of the brand’s something-for-everyone ethos. She’s also left her fingerprints on other elements of Cay Skin. The natural scent hints at a vacation mood while steering clear of “artificial coconut”—a pet peeve of hers. The ingredients pay tribute to the Caribbean, including aloe vera, which her mother used to cut fresh to apply to mosquito bites and the occasional pink sunburn. Even the visuals have Harlow doubling as model and creative director, giving her a 360-degree look at the process. “I had so many hats to wear on that campaign shoot day. But it was so rewarding,” she says.

Even more satisfying will be the feeling of settling into the sand, with her own products in tow. She ticks through a few of her beach favorites. Her snack of choice is a whole coconut: first the water, then the scraped-out jelly. “Melissa Simone, she’s also Canadian; she’s a Black girl. She makes the most beautiful swimwear,” Harlow says, describing a blue-and-green bikini she wore for her birthday in Mexico a couple years ago. “I just loved the way that it held onto my body.” And for music? “One of my favorite artists from Jamaica is Vybz Kartel—but anything dance hall. I want to have fun and dance on the beach,” Harlow adds. Her skin, well shielded, will be ready for it.

SHOP CAY SKIN

VANITY FAIR

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