How Supermodel Winnie Harlow Built Award-Winning Suncare Brand Cay Skin

The model and entrepreneur launched her skincare enterprise in 2022.
Winnie Harlow
Winnie Harlow / Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Winnie Harlow knows the opportunity for a viable business when she sees one. When she was on the set of her 2019 SI Swimsuit Issue photo shoot in the Bahamas, the Canadian fashion model suffered a sunburn that ultimately led her to create her own suncare brand. 

“While I was on set, we couldn’t really find any SPF that looked amazing on my skin, so I didn’t reapply like I should,” Harlow says. “And it really made me think, why is there nothing on the market that looks incredible on all skin tones? SPF that just makes you look amazing and feel amazing—and when I saw that gap in the market, I decided to create Cay Skin.”

Harlow launched Cay Skin in March 2022, and since then, the award-winning suncare brand has been named to Glamour’s Best Luxury Skin Care Products of 2023 list and was included in Bustle’s Best Skincare Products of 2023.

We recently sat down with the 29-year-old model to chat about all things entrepreneurship, from the most rewarding aspects of business ownership to the advice she has to offer to aspiring founders. 

“Formulating for all skin tones … and conditions is so important to me”

One of the biggest challenges Harlow faced when starting Cay Skin was creating a sunscreen product that looked incredible on different skin tones. 

“It's really hard to create a mineral that looks good on all skin tones, because the base of mineral is zinc, and that is a pure stark white formulation, naturally,” she explains. “I've gone through many iterations of trying to use colors to cancel out the tone and the cast and how thick it is and all kinds of different ways to combat the white cast and purple tone that it leaves on skin tones.”

Harlow, who has the skin condition vitiligo, was very conscious about not only creating products that blend seamlessly into various complexions, but also ones that are suitable for a variety of skin types. What sets Cay Skin apart from other suncare brands on the market, she says, is the universality that her line offers. 

“The biggest standout with my line of SPF, the first thing I'm thinking about is how it looks on everyone's skin tone because I never think that anyone should compromise their skin health and protection for beauty,” she notes. “I have combination skin. I also have two tones of colors of skin and so for me, it's very hard to find things that are tinted that I could just put all over my face because it will leave my vitiligo orange or it will leave my brown skin with a white cast. Making sure that I'm formulating for all skin tones, types and conditions is so important to me.”

“The balancing … makes it very challenging”

In addition to the brand’s sunscreen products, the Cay Skin suncare lineup also features lip products and sun aftercare items, like a hydrating body cream and dewy lip mask. 

The most fulfilling aspect of business ownership, Harlow says, is knowing that the products she creates have made a difference to someone. 

“The most rewarding [thing] is when people come up to me and tell me that they love the brand and what it did for them,” Harlow shares. “When somebody comes to me and tells me, ‘Oh my gosh, that was the first SPF that I ever used on my darker skin tone that looked incredible, thank you for creating that,’ that makes it all worth it to me.”

On the flip side, Harlow says there are numerous challenges when it comes to running a business, particularly the act of balancing her work as both a supermodel and entrepreneur. When we spoke, Harlow had just returned to the U.S. from a stint at Paris Fashion Week and was posing for the 60th anniversary SI Swimsuit Issue with fellow brand legends in Hollywood, Fla. 

“The balancing of all the things at once makes it very challenging,” she explains. “From all the separate career paths that I have been blessed enough to partake in, the balancing act is very difficult. But those moments when someone comes to me and is like, ‘I've been using Cay Skin for the past year and it's been incredible for my skin, my skin looks so healthy,’ that makes it worth it to me.”

“Do a lot of research”

When it comes to creating your own business, regardless of industry, Harlow suggests doing your research across the board—not only of the field itself, but of existing competitors, too.  

“Do a lot of research on the business that you want to go into, but also what it takes and like the team that you need to build in order to accomplish the goals you want to accomplish,” she offers. “ … It's so much easier when you know what you don't know and the only way to know what you don't know is to educate yourself and to go out and learn.”

Harlow says it’s also important to push aside any trepidation you may have about embarking upon entrepreneurship and just go for it.

“Once you get that education, you have to kind of push past any fear that you might have,” she says. “ … One piece of really good advice I got from [Fanatics founder] Michael Rubin was [that] when you want to go into a business, you should go into something that you're passionate about because any issues that arise, any uphill battles that you face will always be worth it.”

Cara O’Bleness