How Kelly Slater Learned to Love Sunscreen

Kelly Slater’s disdain for sunscreen goes back years, well before the substance — which, for the record, is almost universally recommended by dermatologists to protect against harmful UV rays — became a target of certain corners of the wellness community.

“I almost never use sunscreen,” he tweeted back in 2011.

The 11-time World Surf League champion doesn’t deny that sunscreen works and said he’s been known to bum a squeeze off of friends after getting burnt on a tropical surfing adventure. At 52, he said he is paying more attention to his skin after decades in the sun.

“I have some spots on my neck and on my head that I want to watch out for,” he said.

Still, it’s a bit of a surprise to see Slater launching Freaks of Nature, a skincare line in which an SPF-30 sunscreen is one of the hero products. (The other is a moisturiser.) Products go on sale Tuesday on the brand’s website.

In many ways, skincare is a natural fit for Slater. The surfer was early to the celebrity brand trend, launching the apparel label Outerknown in 2014 with backing from Kering as well as the surfboard brand Firewire. Launching May 7, he’s following closely behind fellow athletes Serena Williams and LeBron James, who debuted a skincare brand and a grooming line, respectively, in April.

As for sunscreen specifically, Slater is flipping his historic aversion on its head: It’s not that he’s opposed to the concept, he said, as long as protection comes from minerals and other naturally occurring ingredients, rather than chemicals.

“I’ve always been about mineral sunscreens,” he said.

Gorpcore Beauty

Freaks of Nature is leaning into that all-natural branding with plans to launch into more outdoor categories, such as a DEET-free bug repellant it is developing. Chic blue and orange, gender-neutral packaging evokes colourful Patagonia fleeces.

The Freaks of Nature product lineup.
The Freaks of Nature product lineup. (Freaks of Nature)

The brand also has one foot in the world of biohacking, the optimisation-focused, alpha-male answer to wellness culture, which Slater has embraced. Ingredients include a “bio-mimicked version of Japanese spider silk” and sugarcane-derived “vegan shark squalane,” which it promotes as beneficial to the skin microbiome.

Freaks of Nature has enlisted other outdoors-oriented brand ambassadors including rock climber Nina Williams as well as freediver and marine biologist Ocean Ramsey, who is known for swimming cage-free with great white sharks.

There are plenty of elite athletes, outdoorsy types and wellness enthusiasts who pay more attention to ingredient lists and are willing to pay a premium for effective, all-natural products. Environmentally friendly flourishes — packaging made from upcycled ocean plastic, for instance — are also a draw.

The goal is to reach those niches, and then make a play for the mainstream, said Lukas Derksen, co-founder of Freaks of Nature and Squared Circles, the L Catterton-backed venture studio behind Nutrafol, which was sold to Unilever, as well as sustainable clothing brand Pangaia. Other investors in the brand include Mike Meldman, the co-founder of Casamigos tequila and founder of Discovery Land, and actor and filmmaker Jonah Hill.

“If we were to show up at Sephora tomorrow, your hardcore climber in Denver might be like, ‘Wait, what?’” he said. “But I do think, eventually, that we want to get there.”

Making the Case for SPF

Convincing Slater to put his name behind a sunscreen in the first place was a coup — and a challenge.

“Kelly is a really interesting character in a way, because he’s been notorious for not using sunscreen, which is maddening when you think about it,” said Derksen.

That wasn’t always the case. Slater was the face of L’Oréal Paris Solar Expertise sunscreen back in 2006. But that all changed as he became more concerned about chemicals in products.

Some of his objections have extensive research to back them up, including the harmful effects of common sunscreen ingredients on coral reefs or the findings that sunscreen chemicals are absorbed from the skin into the body.

Others originate more from the wellness community than mainstream science, including the belief that chemical-based sunscreens can have harmful effects on the human body. The US Food and Drug Administration, which regulates sunscreen, has not concluded that any ingredients in commercially available sun-protection products are unsafe.

Slater has become increasingly vocal on health topics beyond sunscreen. He was one of a handful of elite athletes who spoke out against Covid-19 vaccination requirements. He’s also a longtime friend and supporter of vaccine-sceptic and presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In December, Slater posted videos of himself surfing with the candidate. In March, he was interviewed in Surfer magazine alongside Kennedy.

Slater said his 20-year long friendship with the candidate stems from their shared interest in environmental activism, adding that he did not believe his association with RFK Jr. would affect the perception of his brand.

“[Slater] is a little bit on the conspiratorial sort of spectrum from time to time,” Derksen said. “Kelly sometimes goes a little bit more extreme than we probably would … But he’s very much into the whole world of biohacking and doing the absolute best for his body.”

Slater said to drive hype around his sunscreen, he is more interested in promoting it through personal use than getting into the science. His girlfriend is helping him develop a skincare routine; he said he is not familiar with the world of “get ready with me” skincare videos.

“I have something I trust and I love and I helped formulate,” Slater said. “Now I bring it for other people.”

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