Profile: How Abi Cleeve democratised sun and skincare with Ultrasun and SkinSense
Abi Cleeve is the MD of Ultrasun UK and the founder of SkinSense. The first Ultrasun formulation was developed and launched in 1992 by Tazio Tettamanti. Five years later, Cleeve stumbled across the brand while on holiday with her family. She loved the product so much that she contacted the company and met Tazio to learn more about his story and motivation for launching the brand.
When Cleeve returned from holiday, she quit her job and set up Ultrasun UK. “I bought the entire set of Yellow Pages and began calling every pharmacy from Aberdeen to Penzance bestowing the virtues of this amazing sun protection product. 30 years on we now have a large range of options for face and body, award wins and a great presence in retail (which started with QVC),” she says. In 2016, she launched her own brand SkinSense, a lamellar based targeted skincare line.
The inspiration behind the launch of SkinSense was Cleeve’s desire to support customers in making decisions about protection from UV and a skincare routine that met their skin’s specific needs. Ultrasun was formulated to simplify sun protection and to convince what she calls “trauma tanners” to protect their skin by offering clear gels, glimmer formulas, tinted options and more. The lamellar formulation used by Ultrasun was something Cleeve really wanted to see in skincare. “By using lamellar structures, the brand can encapsulate actives to absorb just below the skin’s surface, allowing them to work for longer. We’ve become known for targeted, proven actives in a formula that enables the customer to get the maximum benefit, at a price that’s affordable,” she says. Rather than offering a range, Cleeve wanted to empower customers to take ownership of their skincare routines. “When you know what you need, it’s much easier to streamline a routine. It’s also better for the skin barrier and helps control your budget,” she adds.
It took time for Cleve to ensure SkinSense was ready for launch. Being ready was about time, trials and taking control of pricing by being independently owned. The brand has recently launched a Ceramide range, which entered the market a while after the ingredient became popular. “I wanted to introduce next generation ceramides and dig deeper into the ATP piece and provide a booster. We wanted to bring something new to the ceramide options that were available on the market,” she says.
To identify a gap in the market, Cleeve wanted to create options that really delivered and were presented logically so customers could understand where they fit in with their skin and their existing routines. When introducing Ultrasun to the UK market, she never underestimated the importance of listening to the customer. “I’ve been fortunate enough to engage with a QVC audience for Ultrasun for many years now and that has helped me understand the reasons why some people are reluctant to make SPF an everyday decision, and has similarly given real insight into the confusion they may feel when choosing skincare. There’s a real hunger for de-mystifying products, explaining what will work and why,” she says.
When UltraSun was brought to the UK, the health and skincare benefits of using SPF on a daily basis weren’t discussed as much as they are now, so the brand was targeting those with sensitive skins, those who worked outside, new parents, grandparents and people who had had skin cancer and needed very high UV protection and support. SkinSense targeted (and still targets) those who want effective products that address a specific concern. “We cut through the confusion, don’t advocate for 12-step routines and make it easy and logical to select only what you need,” she says.
Both brands were well received when they launched in their respective markets. Even though the lack of awareness around the importance of UV protection was a barrier, education has improved through the years and this has allowed Ultrasun to thrive and be the go-to sun protection brand for consumers who want high UV protection. Since its launch in 2016, SkinSense has won a number of awards and is now stocked in a number of stores including Fenwick. Ultrasun’s bestsellers are the Family SPF30 Formula, Face Anti-pigmentation SPF50+ and the UV Face & Scalp Mist SPF50. SkinSense’s bestsellers are the Overnight Leave On Mask, the Hydrating Collagen Gel and the newly-launched Ceramide24 Serum.
SkinSense’s latest launch is a complete ceramide range (main image). “Next generation ceramides are available and ATP Levels in the skin are a key part of how it can receive skin actives. I took some time to look at the specific benefits of Ceramide NP, which I selected, and how it replenishes the ceramide layer. This ceramide has been shown to significantly increase hydration levels and the blend of fatty acids within it helps soothe inflammation,” she says. Boosting ATP levels are important in ensuring that skin can make maximum use of any ceramide product that is applied. To function efficiently, cells must retain a maximum level of ATP. The range, which has been formulated with lamellar structures, boosts ATP levels simultaneously to deliver ceramide NP with an ingredient called RiboxylTM (a natural D-Ribose - a sugar present in all living cells and a key component in ATP).
To make beauty effective and accessible for all, Cleeve ensures that all of SkinSense’s products remain affordable and below the average price. Its targeted pigmentation treatment is below the average available in the market and gives a 2-month supply and its SPF formula has a shelf life of 2 years after it’s opened, so it can be used for more than one season if needed. Targeting universal skincare concerns has (and continues to remain) a priority for the brand. Ultrasun ensures there is something for everyone - every skin tone and skin type. “We partnered with Black Skin Directory back in 2019 to support them in raising awareness of the importance of wearing sunscreen and addressing misconceptions in the Black community. We also talk to all genders (men are often more reluctant to protect).
At SkinSense, Cleeve has control over pricing without answering to a board at a core level, meaning she has always balanced being able to offer higher concentrations of ingredients at a price that’s affordable. “I’m mindful of budget worries for many currently and I’m offering further value with the QVC collections we create. These tend to offer at least 50-60% off full price products and are a great way for customers to try a few products at once too,” she says.
For both brands, Cleeve and her team continue to invest in ongoing research, which means that both Ultrasun and SkinSense can introduce and re-formulate as new ingredients or combinations become available. “Ultrasun remains the only SPF brand to be BASF ECO SUN pass accredited, which measures across 8 different environmental impact factors, beyond just “reef friendly” for example. We also add value by being available to talk to customers by email or phone, to support them in matching products to their specific situation and budget,” she says.
As a brand founder, Cleeve’s top priority is to preserve formula efficacy and price, which is something she believes will continue to shape the beauty industry in the years to come. She also predicts that the skin barrier conversation will continue. “The trend towards streamlining our skincare routines will evolve further. Streamlining draws a straight line to the INCI and a simple equation: ingredients + the stability of the formula that houses them + the specific skin concerns addressed in one product. When consumers make more informed decisions, they feel more confident in simplifying their routines, which is why I believe multi-tasking products will continue to grow in popularity. There’ll be less Insta #shelfies, that’s for sure,” she says. Cleeve also thinks tech in the retail experience will continue to evolve and push the experiences available to customers, which she finds ‘exciting’.
Cleeve’s advice to anyone who wants to get into the beauty industry is to really care about what you do. “It must be an all-consuming passion that takes you through the challenges and curve balls and ensures you’re constantly looking for innovation and improvement. When you really care about what you do, the outcomes speak for themselves. The beauty industry has some of the very best creative, commercial, change-making minds available. I’m constantly wowed by them all and just love working in it,” she says.
So what’s next for Ultrasun and SkinSense? Cleeve confirms that she and the team are currently working on some targeted formulas with some ‘exciting’ early results. More should be revealed in 2024.