Growing Arbre: A Community for Sun and Environmental Protection


After a sunny summer weekend with friends, the next day Stephanie Tien felt pain on her scalp and dandruff-like peeling from a severe sunburn. In her search for a solution, she found limited hair liquids/sprays and expensive products that were often unavailable in Canada.

That sparked the idea for Arbre, a sustainable sun care brand that creates functional SPF products, led by co-founders Stephanie Tien and Kristina Knox. Their debut product will be a mineral-based SPF powder for the scalp. “There hasn't been a ton of innovation with traditional sunscreens, they are all the same brands, types and smells,” Tien said, “so we want to provide a new option that caters to people’s needs.”

Tien and Knox are passionate scientists, researchers, and grad students dedicated to creating Arbre products and educating the community on sun care through Arbre’s Instagram and blog The Grove. “As we researched more about sunscreen ingredients, we found a lot of them right now are actually bad for the earth,” Knox explains, “most chemical sunscreens are using oxybenzone which is responsible for 10% of coral bleaching worldwide.” Many personal care products also contain microplastics or some harmful nanoparticles, that leak into ocean waters and hurt marine life.

“We are focused on having ingredients people can pronounce over harmful chemicals and fillers,” Tien added and noted Arbre’s use of more sustainable active ingredients, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The company plans to implement sustainable consumption, through carbon neutral packaging, circular processes, and education. “Sometimes there’s little transparency in natural beauty,” Knox said, “which is why we focus on arming consumers with the knowledge to make informed decisions.”

Currently, Arbre is in the product development phase. Tien and Knox control and lead the research, development, formulation, and testing. “It is difficult now with some lab restrictions, due to the pandemic, but we do as much as we can,” Tien said, “and it's actually been really fun to prototype and tinker around with the formulation to find what we want and need.”

Knox notes that SPF products are necessary and misunderstood. “There's a huge myth that the darker your skin tone the less you need sunscreen,” Knox added, “but anyone can get sunburnt which can in fact increase your risk of skin cancer.” Most SPF products today use a “one-size-fits-all” approach, despite different skin types, skin colours, hair types and hair colours. Sunscreens can leave a white cast that do not fully blend into darker skin and hair sprays can leave unflattering residue on dark hair. “As women of color, we find lots of products that aren't catered to us or have us in mind,” Tien said, “but we kind of use that to our advantage in our testing.”

From researching and managing to formulating and testing, Tien and Knox balance their love of science and entrepreneurship into Arbre. “At first, we were afraid this idea was too big,” Tien said, “but we found a supportive network that’s guided us along the way.” Arbre has been apart of ICUBE at UTM and recently joined The Hub at UTSC, where their pitch won seed money in their annual Startup Intake competition. “Our mentality is there's no harm in trying,” Tien advised, “maybe we don't have all the skills, but we can learn them.” Tien and Knox noted that the online format has given them unique opportunities as women entrepreneurs to participate in events and join incubators.

Community and nature inspire Arbre, the word itself translates to tree in French, and their blog is called The Grove, which are a community of trees that provide protection from the sun and are vital to the land. Arbre represents sun and environmental protection, through accessible, sustainable, affordable, and effective SPF products developed by a hard-working and passionate duo.  

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-- article by Jenefer Savoeung