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There’s a Better Way to Sunscreen, and You’ve Got to See It to Believe It

There’s a Better Way to Sunscreen, and You’ve Got to See It to Believe It

Erin Stewart — Social Adventures

Illustration by Eli Miller

Illustration by Eli Miller

Barrett Seymour, co-founder of organic sunscreen producer Manda Naturals, remembers how he and four friends first got the idea for a natural, environmentally safe way to protect themselves from the summer rays. The group was on a surf trip together when they noticed something strange about the water around them. It had turned opaque with the residue of the sunscreen they had put on for their long day at the beach. Seymour wondered, “What is even happening there?” The five resolved to investigate sunscreen and its impact on our oceans.

They discovered that a surprising amount of sunscreen from swimmers ends up around coral reefs. The U.S. National Park Service estimates that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas every year. It’s a problem because most sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a substance that—according to a study conducted in 2015—contaminates marine environments and can lead to coral bleaching, which kills off reefs, as well as being toxic to a variety of small aquatic creatures. Because oxybenzone is absorbed into the skin, it can be present in urine in just 30 minutes after application, meaning that it could potentially harm oceans and other waterways just by flushing out into our sewer system.

“Finding that out and having that lightbulb go on was definitely an eye-opening moment,” says Seymour during a phone interview. “We’re surfers at heart, so we need to protect our playground. The ocean is where we spend a lot of our time and so anything we can do to preserve that and keep it as wonderful and amazing as it is, is definitely very important to us.”

Another problem Manda’s cofounders encountered was that as the sunscreen was washing off in the water, it wasn’t doing a great job at protecting them from the sun. While ordinary sunscreen can be effective, the Skin Cancer Foundation advises that you can’t assume that sunscreen you applied two hours ago is still working. Surfers—or anyone with outdoor hobbies—constantly have to guess whether to reapply.

Out of these realizations and research, the Southern California-based Manda Naturals was born. Its sunscreen is made from ingredients like coconut oil, beeswax, shea butter, cocoa butter, and zinc oxide. It also features thanaka, a paste made from ground bark and used in Myanmar for more than 2,000 years as a sun protection and beauty product. Unlike regular sunscreen, which soaks into the skin and filters ultraviolet (UV) rays, Manda acts as a direct barrier between the skin and the sun’s rays—the UV rays don’t even reach the skin. In fact, by design, the sunscreen visibly remains on the skin’s surface (which indicates that it’s on properly and working as sun protection).

“We developed it first in our kitchen,” Seymour explains. The group began experimenting with different recipes, just to see if it was possible to make a sunscreen substitute from eco-friendly ingredients. When they found a formula they were happy with, they enlisted in the help of a scientist to perfect it, and to make sure the recipe met all the required safety regulations as a skin protection product. In October 2015, Manda launched a Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than double its funding target. The sunscreen was brought to market in 2016 and is available for purchase on their website, in health food stores, surf stores, and yoga studios.

“We were really surprised to learn how simple it can be,” Seymour says of the product development process. “Nature always provides, and there are natural solutions out there that we can use just as effectively to get the results that we want without having to use these synthetic, man-made chemical ingredients to solve the problem.” Manda’s sunscreen has recently been given an SPF 50 rating, which means it offers protection from 98 percent or more of UV radiation, and therefore reduces skin cancer risk. To Seymour, this shows that “natural ingredients can get the job done, and they can supply ample protection.”

One of Manda’s main challenges though, is in convincing potential customers to use a skin protection product that works a little differently than most; Manda isn’t applied or removed like other sunscreens. As Seymour explains, “We’re so used to getting out that big ol’ plastic tube and squirting out some white lotion and smearing it all over our face and our bodies. That’s just been the way we’ve done it for so long that it’s what people have come to expect.” Manda has a thicker, creamier consistency—it’s described on the label as a “paste.” Because it contains beeswax, on a cooler morning it may require some heat (such as by rubbing it with a finger) before it is soft enough to be applied. Unlike regular sunscreen, it doesn’t wear off on its own over the course of a few hours. Users may need to wipe it off with a towel.

But once users challenge their habits and expectations, they seem pretty positive about the highly visible paste. Instagram is full of pictures of people enjoying photogenic, outdoorsy lifestyles while sporting Manda. Last year, Manda Naturals sold out of the product entirely, several months earlier than they’d anticipated.

“Now that we have people listening and paying attention, we want to make the most of that,” says Seymour. He wants the brand to continue educating people about how typical sunscreens pollute our oceans—and ideally, get them to start thinking about how all the other products they buy could also contribute to the degradation of marine ecosystems. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, some deodorants, shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, and many other ordinary beauty and body products can harm oceans after they’re washed down drains and into waterways.

Ultimately, Seymour would like to help people make better environmental choices by developing Manda Naturals into a broader personal care brand. “We want to be making products that are good for our bodies and good for the planet,” he says.

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