The Next Brand, Episode #21

Is sunscreen bad for you, deciding what to work on, and the Delta variant

Hi there, and welcome to The Next Brand - my take on health, wellness and brand building.

In the last 5 years I’ve founded 2 health brands (Kettle & Fire and Perfect Keto), which each do tens of millions in revenue. I’ve raised ~$20mm to build Kettle & Fire, gotten into 10k+ retail stores, bootstrapped Perfect Keto, launched 80+ SKUs… and have a small portfolio of Shopify apps I run on the side. Previously, I worked in tech and had no experience in CPG, DTC or any other 3-letter industries.

If you missed past episodes, you can catch up here (Episode 18, 19, 20). Otherwise, let’s dive in!

🆕 What’s new

With the Delta variant spreading like wild, multiple recently vaccinated friends getting it (and frankly, getting knocked on their asses), and still large swaths of the population hesitant to get the vaccines… it’s possible we’re in for another round of lockdowns and restrictions, at least in some states. 

(Though The Zvi, who has gotten much, much, MUCH more right about COVID in the last 18 months than any CNN experts, suspects this 3rd Delta wave will not be as big a deal, and early indications are that both deaths + hospitalizations are far lower than the first two waves). 

Given the spread of the Delta variant and continued mutations, it seems to me that COVID and its variants are here to stay permanently, and will become like the flu. 

To me, this makes it all the more important to focus on the health of your immune system: get sun, good sleep, drink less and eat well. It might just be the difference between getting floored by the new variant and getting just a slight cold. 

All this sucks, but I’m very hopeful that Zvi is right and we are mostly out of the woods in the next few months. Until then, do what you can to focus on your health and the health of those around you. Fingers crossed we’ll be through this soon 🤞

💪 Health stuff

As summer heats up (literally - already beginning to see record temperatures across the US), more and more humans take to slathering pasty white lotion on their bodies on a regular basis.

Aah, summer. 

I spent part of July in Costa Rica and had some conversations with friends about the use of sunscreen. Namely, should you use it? 

Conventional wisdom says yes. Conventional wisdom also created the food pyramid that has likely played a significant role in the explosion of obesity and chronic disease over the last several decades. 

As many of you know, when it comes to health I’m not the biggest fan of conventional wisdom. So I wanted to dig in further - does sunscreen actually deliver on the cancer-fighting promises its proponents claim? 

On this, the data is decidedly mixed. Some research (warning: observational study alert) reports that sunscreen decreases the risk of melanoma  (the deadliest form of skin cancer), while other studies show that sunscreen increases risk of melanomas. 

Additionally, the rate of melanoma continues to rise significantly each year, and has more than tripled since the 1970s in the U.S. and rest of the world, even though there’s been a drastic increase in sunscreen usage. 

*Source

This doesn’t nearly prove that sunscreen is worthless, as generalized rates of cancer have been going up over the last few decades. As all cancers have been rising (perhaps due to diet, inflammation, or some as-of-yet unknown factor), melanomas could be increasing for the same reason(s) that other cancers are increasingly prevalent... and could be much worse if not for sunscreen! 

That said, it is a suggestive data point. 

Digging in further, I realized that I (and many of my friends) actually had no idea how sunscreen even works. 

Sunscreen is designed to block and/or absorb UV radiation. UV radiation comes in both UVB and UVA rays: the UVB is historically the bad stuff, and the main cause of sunburn and skin cancer. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply, and were once thought to cause aging but not skin cancer. From my reading, the consensus seems to be changing as studies are pointing towards UVA playing a larger role in skin cancer development than previously thought. 

Unfortunately, many sunscreens on the market contain ingredients that only block UVB rays, and thus provide almost no protection from UVAs. Though good for preventing sunburn, ‘screens that solely block UVBs could make people comfortable spending more time in the sun than their body can take, and thus getting waaaay more UVA exposure than they can handle. 

This could be doing more harm than good, unfortunately. After all, sunburns happen for a reason: it’s our bodies telling us to get out of the sun! Just like burning your mouth is a sign that you’re eating something too hot to handle, a sunburn is your body causing you pain to give you feedback that it’s getting a harmful amount of sun. 

Even if you block out the UVBs causing burns, you’re still getting a whole lotta UVAs which can cause skin cancer. Not cool, Banana Boat. 

But wait - it gets worse! 

You see, sunscreen works by blocking and absorbing UV rays through a combination of physical and chemical particles. Some sunscreens use physical particles, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, to reflect UV radiation from the skin. Think of them like tiny mirrors physically reflecting + blocking rays from entering your skin. 

Billionaires can afford lots of tiny sunscreen mirrors 

Non-mineral sunscreens work differently. Instead of physically blocking UV rays from penetrating your skin, they contain complex chemical ingredients that react with UV rays before they penetrate the skin, thus absorbing the rays and releasing the energy as heat.

Unfortunately, there’s increasing evidence that these complex chemicals are not so friendly to the human body. As Chris Kresser mentions, these chemicals are easily absorbed into the skin. One common UV filter, oxybenzone, was detected in the urine, plasma, and breast milk of human volunteers after full-body sunscreen application, and was found in 96% of urine samples collected in the US during 2003 and 2004 (2, 3, 4), and has been detected in 85% of breast milk samples in Switzerland (5). 

This same chemical has been shown in mice to decrease sperm density and increase abnormal sperm count. Other studies have linked oxybenzone and other common sunscreen ingredients to hormone disruption, and recently the European Commission (which reviews ingredient safety in Europe) published a preliminary finding that oxybenzone is unsafe at current usage levels. 

Maybe this could be one reason as to why nobody is having sex

Though unrelated to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, I also want to call out one last thing: SPF is dumb. 

For one, it does not account for a sunscreen’s ability to protect against UVA rays. For another, SPF values higher than 60 have not been shown to provide additional benefit (according to the FDA). 

And higher SPFs aren’t that different: for example, SPF 50 should block 98% of UVB rays, whereas SPF 100 blocks 99%. A trivial increase that definitely misleads consumers (including me). 

Thanks Justin, you’ve now ruined Beyond Burgers and sunscreen for me. What can I do? 

Well, instead of buying toxic sunscreens, I’d recommend looking for non-nano zinc oxide ones. A non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen should protect against both UVA and UVB rays, and contain particles too large to be readily absorbed by the skin (see links section for specific recs). 

You could try eating these sun gummies that may or may not do anything, idk. But what I’d recommend is getting shade (or wearing a sun shirt - I recently bought this one), getting sun on a regular basis to acclimate yourself (vs being an indoor cat and then sunbathing for 10+ hours a day during your week at the beach), and buying mineral-based sunscreens. 

Of course, you could always give the Chinese facekini a try 

For much, much more on this topic, I recommend checking out the EWG’s sunscreen guide. Otherwise, catch you on the beach 🏄‍♂️ 

🤑 Biz stuff

In 2013, I decided to quit my job and leave Rackspace after the Exceptional acquisition, where I’d been running growth. 

At that point, I was stuck with what felt like the ultimate first-world problem... 

I didn’t know what company to start next.

In the end, I started Kettle & Fire (after validating it). I also ended up buying another company, Fomo, in the marketing tools space  - another space I knew well. 

Both are (fortunately) working well and I’m happy with where I ended up. But man, I really think I could have done a better job figuring out what I was going to work on. 

If I could do it all again, I’d start by thinking about something I’m calling the problem stack.

The Problem Stack

Successful startups solve problems. Therefore, it follows that — to build a successful startup — you have to solve a problem.

Easy, right?

Yes and no. You see, it almost entirely depends on the level at which you solve a problem.

Let’s say you find a problem — cancer, in this example — that you care about. It’s something that personally affects you, something you care deeply about, and something you’re willing to dedicate your life to working on. Oh, and you want to make some money in the process as well.

How could you best contribute to solving the problem of cancer?

On one level, you could volunteer to help those who have cancer. You could impact tens of people this way, and help them cope with their disease, help them with improving their diet and lifestyle, and be a positive influence during the recovery process.

On another level, you could be a doctor — an oncologist, surgeon, nurse, whatever. Over the course of your career, you could expect to help thousands of cancer patients.

On a different level (removed from individuals with cancer, but still working on the problem), you could work at a hospital, or for a cancer non-profit. Here, your work would impact many thousands of people over the course of your career as you work to help those with cancer.

Another level: build a hospital non-profit. 

Here’s where things start to get interesting, where the concept of leverage comes into play. If you build a successful hospital that helps treat cancer, you’d impact tens of thousands of people over your lifetime… not to mention thousands more after retirement.

Yet another level: start a company (or a lab) that works on basic cancer research. At this level, you have the ability to impact hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of lives. 

Have a company that develops a drug that cures a class of cancer? Or discover something novel about how tumors grow and develop? Potentially millions impacted. Well done!

However, there’s a whole other level of problems we haven’t talked about. Meta problems.

Meta Problems

Here’s where I think things get really interesting. Everything to this point is part of the (vitally important) problem stack.

However, I think there are a class of problems — what I’m calling meta problems — that address a class of problems in a systematic way.

What am I talking about? Let’s take our earlier example. If you wanted to tackle cancer at the meta problem level, you could…

  • Start a company, fund, or lab that spins off or funds multiple companies trying to solve the cancer problem. Think about what John Rockefeller did by investing in building multiple medical schools — that’s solving a problem at a meta level. He built an organization that would create individuals that could then solve health problems. Meta.

  • To get even more meta (meta-er?), you could start a company or work on policy that increases the amount of funding going towards cancer, thus increasing the resources directed at solving the problem of cancer. This would be a meta-meta-level approach to solving the problem. And, it’d probably work! The more resources you were able to shift towards curing cancer, the more resources are available at every level of the problem stack.

This type of meta thinking is what I think Patrick Collison (founder of Stripe) is talking about when he says that Stripe “builds roads, not cars”. Stripe is building infrastructure (payments via Stripe, incorporation via Atlas) and making it easier for all kinds of businesses to start and operate.

It bears repeating: there are multiple levels on which you can solve a problem. Meta-level problems are about solving a class of problems, while problems lower on the problem stack are more specific.

To find your next idea, maybe the best thing to do would be to identify a problem you care about and figure out the meta-level problem you could solve.

😌 Dope stuff on the internet

Some of my favorite things since the last newsletter (note: I don’t get paid to recommend anything here):

  • 📰  Article - Interested in a long read about the history of consciousness-altering substances on human productivity and economic progress? Got you, fam! This article was a thought-provoking read that argues that coffee, cannabis, psychedelics, cocaine and other mind-altering substances were responsible for driving many of the world’s most successful individual achievers (Thomas Edison being one). Interesting read even if you don’t buy the premise.

  • 📚 Book rec - I’ve been a big fan of David McCullough for a while now, and given the recent July 4th holiday I figured I’d pick up his book on the year of the American Revolution, 1776. It did not disappoint.
    My biggest takeaway from this read was just how close the revolution was to failing. States often didn’t want to send men to fight a war of unknown length, the newly-formed Continental Congress had very little money to pay troops, almost all fighting men were untrained… the war was very, very nearly lost. Given just how much I appreciate this country (warts and all), this was an inspiring read and gave me a new appreciation for just how close we were to never existing at all. Go America 🇺🇸

  • Cool product - On the heels of all that sunscreen talk, I’ve found 2 options (this and this) that seem like good buys with clean ingredients. Enjoy soaking up the sun and get that sun exposure ☀️

  • 🎵 Music - A much different set and vibe than I normally go for, but man do I love Mac Miller’s Tiny Desk concert. I’ve probably listened to it over 500x at this point and it just gets me for reasons I’ll probably never understand.
    If you’re less into this kind of music, this Lee Burridge set is a chill one that will keep you going for a solid workday afternoon.

  • 🏀 Random - For those of you interested in building side hustles, I talk a LOT about them in a recent podcast episode I did for My First Million. Give it a listen and let me know what you think! 

***

That’s all I got this month. Enjoy the next 30 days of your precious life, and I’ll work on doing the same. 

👋

Justin