The Unlikely TikTok Success Story of Derm-Beloved Sunscreen Brand EltaMD

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EltaMD has always had the potential to be one of the greats: The brand has been around since 2007 (though it originally began as a wound-care company in 1988), and its products are sold at retailers like Dermstore and Bluemercury. Prices top out at around $60 for a face serum, though most hover around $30. The formulas are simple yet effective, and highly recommended by hordes of dermatologists. But with its straightforward packaging, EltaMD is not what the kids might call #aesthetic.

“As a professional skin-care brand with a deep medical heritage born out of wound healing, our brand persona isn’t to be flashy or be driven by trends,” says Echo Sandburg, chief brand officer of CP Skin Health and EltaMD. “EltaMD, for far too long, has been one of the best-kept skin-care secrets — and it should’t be.”

That seems to be changing. In the last two-plus years, the brand has seen unprecedented growth from an unexpected source: TikTok. Unlike the overly curated grids of Instagram, content on TikTok can be a little rough around the edges; it’s not uncommon to see a creator in front of a janky “green screen” background, holding a two-inch microphone as they muse about their topic of choice. In other words: All brands, flashy or otherwise, start with a relatively even playing field and the same opportunity to get creative.

Sandburg says a general increase in skin-care content amid the pandemic also contributed to the brand’s newfound popularity. Before the brand had even established its own account, posts about EltaMD products started to organically take off. “We also started to see skin professionals take to TikTok to provide credible information that users were seeking,” she adds.

Enter the “dermfluencer”: dermatologists who moonlight as content creators, recommending products, reacting to skin-care videos, debunking myths and breaking down trends for their thousands of followers. “A positive by-product from COVID was seeing skin health conversations expand outside of the office,” notes Sandburg, calling out dermatologists Dr. Dustin Portela and Dr. Muneeb Shah, specifically.

EltaMD started partnering with some of these pros to lean on their credibility — and scale. “It only made sense for us to meet people where they were, and play in this space,” says Sandburg. “TikTok is a unique channel, and since it was new for us, our strategy was to start by working with DOLs, or digital opinion leaders, that had found their groove in the platform.”

The brand also saw success with the classics, like GRWM (that is, “get ready with me”) and haul videos, which led to spikes in both site traffic and sales. Eventually, it had no choice but to jump in with an official presence. “By the end of 2021, we made the move to officially open an EltaMD brand account,” she says. The brand’s following is modest — just under 70,000 — but its reach is far greater; the hashtag #eltamd has 40 million views, while #eltamdsunscreen on its own has nearly 6 million views.

Part of that success can be directly attributed to the Hailey Bieber Effect. The supermodel and Rhode founder used the EltaMD UV Daily Tinted Broad Spectrum SPF 40 in a skin prep video in February, and the clip went on to reach 25 million views. The product — already a top seller — became a bona fide hit. 

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“UV Daily Tinted saw an incremental spike in sales, which has been sustained growth throughout the year,” says Sandburg. The product’s success also translated off-platform. “We saw the search term ‘EltaMD tinted sunscreen’ emerge as a breakout topic on Google Trends, growing more than 5,000% in searches last year,” she notes.

Bieber wasn’t the only celebrity singing EltaMD’s praises. Everyone from Gen-Z fave Addison Rae to former Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel (who recently transitioned into a beauty influencer of sorts) have also shouted out the brand, demonstrating just how vast its audience and appeal are.

For EltaMD, part of the appeal of TikTok — in addition to, well, selling product — is spreading the word about sun protection in an approachable way. “We know that the vast majority of Americans do not wear sunscreen regularly,” says Sandburg. “So we are delighted when celebs use their platforms to help people to create healthy habits.”

When it came time for EltaMD to launch a new SKU in the sun-care lineup, the social platform was a key part of the company’s marketing strategy. “UV Sheer Broad-Spectrum SPF 50+ is an example of a sunscreen that got off to a fast start,” says Sandburg. Case in point: A video with Dr. Shah featuring it amassed more than 4 million views.

Although the sunscreens tend to be consumers’ first touchpoint with EltaMD, TikTok has also given the brand an opportunity to share more about the rest of its offerings. “The fastest growing part of our non-SPF lineup has been our Skin Recovery System,” says Sandburg. “This system contains a patented technology called AAComplex which helps to repair and strengthen your skin barrier.”

No one is more pleased — or less surprised — to see the brand succeed than derms. For Dr. Mona Gohara, who is also a member of EltaMD’s advisory council, recommending the brand is a no-brainer. “I have been using EltaMD for many years — almost 20 — and recommend it daily to my patients of all different ethnicities,” she says, though she admits, “Perhaps there are now more people coming in asking me about it since [it has] a bigger social media presence.” In her own routine, she uses the UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46, “because it is great for all skin types, and conditions, particularly those with acne or rosacea,” and is also a fan of the puffiness-reducing Renew Eye Gel.

Whatever the product, EltaMD’s success is a reminder that performance is always the strongest selling point in any digital marketing strategy. Dermfluencers and Hailey Bieber just help spread the word. 

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