July 27, 2019

Taking Responsibility with Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Mama Kuleana Reef Safe Sunscreen Maui Hawaii

Are you familiar with coral bleaching and the impacts it’s having on reefs around the world? There’s a good chance you’ve heard something like, “The Great Barrier Reef is dying,” but what does that actually mean?

While several things are at play—global warming (increasing temperature of the ocean and changing pH levels), overfishing, microplastics, and pollutants—there’s another big one that you might not even have considered…one that you’re *probably* using every day: sunscreen.

Yep, chemical sunscreens are killing the reef.

How? For the full lowdown, head over to this article on What the Heck is Coral Bleaching and Why Does it Matter? Essentially chemical-based sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate are choking the oxygen in the water. These chemicals damage the DNA in both larval and adult coral, limiting their ability to grow and spawn. They are also hormone disruptors and can change male fish to female—impairing their reproduction cycle. So the coral can’t reproduce and neither can the fish…leading to dying reefs.

What the heck, right?

This doesn’t mean stop wearing sunscreen—not by any means—you just need to switch your sunscreen to a reef-safe one without all those nasty chemicals.

While research is ongoing, in July 2018, Hawaii passed a law prohibiting future sales of sunscreens with oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3) and octinoxate. This law passed in part due to Susan Varsames, the founder of mama KULEANA reef-safe sunscreen.

While we were in Maui, we met up with Susan and she graciously invited us into her home so we could learn more about the work she does and measures we can take to save the coral reefs!

Mama Kuleana Sunscreen Monstera Background

How Did Susan Get Started Making Reef-Safe Sunscreen?

Susan has a background as an educator in special education and opened up a center called Holistic Learning Center in White Plains, New York where she taught families how to take toxins out of their world, clean out the gut, and truly look at ingredients in all things around them.

She’s been teaching families to use natural products and botanicals for decades and is always toying with recipes to make natural shampoos, deodorants, and hair gels. As an avid diver living in Maui, she noticed a major problem developing within the coral reefs. So she went to testify at the Maui County Council about her concern for the reef and asked,

“Why don’t we use a natural one?”

The Maui County Council responded with, “Well, where is the natural sunscreen?” Since Susan had tons of experience creating natural products, coming up with a reef-safe sunscreen was a no brainer. She designed a label, got a patent, and formulated the recipe for the sunscreen within a month!

Say hello to mama KULEANA reef-safe sunscreen!

Mama Kuleana Reef Safe Sunscreen Maui Hawaii-10

What Does KULEANA mean?

You can probably guess that mama is short for “Mother Earth,” but you might not be familiar with the Hawaiian word of ‘kuleana.’

Kuleana means taking responsibility with diligence and intent.

Therefore mama KULEANA as a brand and practice means taking responsibility for Mother Earth—and that’s something we can get behind!

handmade reef friendly safe sunscreen mama kuleana

What Goes Into The Sunscreen?

All of the sunscreens are made in small batches in Susan’s home. So, what goes into a reef-safe sunscreen when you’re only using natural ingredients?

No toxins! Not for the fish, not for the coral, and not for us!

mama kuleana reef safe sunscreen ingredients

Susan asked a New York-based dermatologist what oils most closely resembles the linoleic acid produced by the skin. She really liked the concept of things being bio-identical and close to what your body produces—which is really good for people with sensitivities and allergies (like Chelsea!).

The answer? Olive oil, macadamia oil, or safflower oil. 

Well, Susan didn’t want those using the sunscreen to smell like a salad; macadamia oil was crazy expensive and would put the price point over $40 a container…so safflower oil was the optimal choice!

She also included non-nano zinc oxide as the active ingredient, raspberry oil and carrot seed oil which have a high SPF (this was news to us!), and a bit of coconut oil which also raised the SPF.

Susan Mama Kuleana Maui Hawaii

Susan actually grows many of the ingredients on her property—coconuts, bananas, lemons, mangos, herbs, etc. As we toured the blossoming property with her, she explained that she doesn’t use any pesticides as though they might kill pests, they also impact bees and that would affect the reproductivity of her plants.

Mama Kuleana Reef Safe Sunscreen Maui Hawaii-7

Have There Been Any Positive Changes?

Susan went back to the Maui County Council with her answer to the problem:
mama KULEANA reef-safe sunscreen.

And look at what happened next…

On Tuesday, July 3, 2018, Hawaii Governor David Ige made history by signing Senate Bill 2571 (now Act 104) into law, becoming the first state in the U.S. to ban the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate chemicals without a prescription issued by a licensed healthcare provider. The historic bill was introduced to the Senate on January 19, 2018 by Hawaii Senator Mike Gabbard and will be in effect on January 1, 2021 (Maui Ocean Center).

So, he did give the sunscreen companies a few years to sell what they’ve already made…but it’s definitely a step in the right direction!

Intrigued by this natural sunscreen, Maui County Council asked Susan to educate others about the ingredients and benefits. She would go to science fairs with raw ingredients and have kids and members of the public identify the ingredients and then educate them on what they were used for. 

Maui Hawaii

“Things can be way more simple—original medicine is from the Earth. We have everything from the Earth that we need, if we don’t screw it up with pesticides we have everything we need. It’s here, it’s on the planet!” — Susan Varsames, mama KULEANA

Another thing that’s pretty cool? The biodegradable containers disintegrate in a landfill after two months! However, she can see issues that arise and understands that the biodegradable container is not ideal for the surfer when he wants to put the sunscreen in his pocket. But the truth of the matter is that plastic is destroying the planet. That said, there are a number of other reef-safe sunscreens popping up that are available in other containers.

For all those that actively use reef-safe sunscreen, Susan wants to thank you for being a conscious consumer—because all it takes is a little thought. Susan believes, as do we, that once people are educated, they care.

We wholeheartedly feel that if people are presented with easy solutions, they’re willing to be proactive to protect the environment. 

Mama Kuleana Maui Hawaii Reef Safe Collage

Want to be a part of the change? You can get a container of mama KULEANA reef-safe sunscreen on Amazon!

Let Us Know Your Thoughts



Culture Shoque is digital destination and channel designed to cultivate relationships in your community and while traveling. By breaking down barriers and xenophobia through the exploration of customs and food, the pursuit of joy, and environmental conservation, the goal is to show that at the core, we aren’t all that different. In fact, we all stem from similar roots. It’s time to nourish them and grow together. 

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