The Sunscreen Ban in Hawai‘i is Creating Opportunities for Local Businesses
Changing laws and attitudes are creating opportunities for Hawai‘i’s natural sunscreen startups.
This story originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of our sister publication, HAWAI‘I BUSINESS Magazine.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LITTLE HANDS HAWAI‘I
It was the squirt and slather heard ‘round the world.
Senate Bill 2571, passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. David Ige, will by Jan. 1, 2021, ban the sale or distribution in the state of any sunscreen that contains the chemicals oxybenzone or octinoxate without a prescription. The goal of the groundbreaking legislation is to preserve coral and ecosystems that marine scientists say are damaged by those sunscreens and the bill has drawn international attention.
The movement toward more eco-friendly sunscreens has been growing for years, with local entrepreneurs experimenting and testing their formulas and slowly growing their sales. The big boys have noticed, too: Outdoor goods retailer REI announced in April that it would ban oxybenzone products from its 151 stores by 2020, as part of an overall sustainability requirement for its suppliers.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which releases a yearly review of hundreds of sunscreens, has seen a rise in the availability of mineral sunscreens that don’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, or any chemical sunscreen ingredient at all. They rely instead on the FDA-approved ingredients zinc oxide or titanium oxide. In 2007, only 17 percent of the products the EWG reviewed were mineral based; this year, it’s up to 41 percent.
In America, the consciousness around this issue began in Hawai‘i, where people value both their own health and the health of the ocean and reefs. Innovative local companies saw a need for safer, healthier sunscreens and moved to fill it.
Rosalyn Ardoin, co-founder of local organic sunscreen brand Little Hands Hawai‘i, says, when she started her business seven years ago, “We would be setting up at farmers’ markets, talking about the reef health and sunscreen, and people would look at us like we were cross-eyed.” She and her husband have now grown their business to six figures a year in sales.
Once Senate Bill 2571 was in the news, guides to reef-safe sunscreen bloomed across the national media, appearing online in mainstream publications such as Travel + Leisure, Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler.
“Absolutely, there is more interest now. People come to me, asking, ‘Do you have the reef-safe?’ Two people came at me to rep already,” says Charles “Gary” Gray, owner of Nalu Koa, a natural bath and body business based in Upcountry Maui.
“We formulated our own sunscreen about two years ago. I’m not chasing a lot of accounts and yet our email is packed and the phone is ringing,” Gray says. A longtime waterman, he says, “I’m very proud of our formula. I’m trying to encourage the protection of our ecosystem. I have watched the degradation of it over the past 20 years.”
In Honolulu, the brand Kokua Sun Care launched in March, coinciding with the new law’s proposal very tidily from the owners’ perspectives. “Travel + Leisure did a feature and for the next week our sales blew up,” says co-founder Robin Van Niekerk.
He and his co-founder, Tatyana Cerullo, joke that they slogged through a “University of Sunscreen” degree during a 5½-year product development. Like many entrepreneurs, they started at home with a vision and experimented in their kitchen to create a less noxious sunscreen.
Van Nierkerk is a boat captain and says that on the boats, “We banned people from using the spray sunscreens because the chemicals eat away at the Plexiglas. It makes it bubble up.” Cerullo is a practicing attorney and health conscious. Nierkerk says, “She taught me how to read labels.”
“There were all these recipes popping up on the Internet, ‘Make your own sunscreen with beeswax.’ We ruined a pot trying to make our own,” says Van Niekerk. “Then we realized, this is an FDA-regulated product. You have to have it tested. And we were like, ‘How is that going to happen?’ We didn’t know anyone.”