For When the Sun is Shining

A conversation with Thomas Bissell

As of January 2021, Hawaii will ban the sale of sunscreens containing a chemical called Oxybenzone. One of the most common ingredients in commercially available sunscreens, Oxybenzone has proven poisonous to coral, and has been linked to the bleaching and subsequent death of many reefs near Hawaii’s busiest tourist beaches. The ban will make the sale of roughly 70% of all chemical-based sunscreens illegal.

Oxybenzone has a similar effect on DNA to that of gasoline. Not only is it dangerous to coral, but also a wide variety of marine life, causing genetic deformities to soft tissue. The effect on humans, however, hasn’t been studied scientifically – a point which the Food and Drug Administration like to use in Oxybenzone’s defence when anyone questions whether it’s a good idea to rub a toxic chemical which causes genetic mutation into your own skin. Currently, the FDA state that Oxybenzone “aides in decreasing the risk of developing skin cancer.”

Predictably, many of the major sunscreen manufacturers have reacted poorly. Johnson & Johnson, everyone’s favourite family-friendly conglomerate and owner of various sunscreen brands, said Hawaii’s decision was based on “weak science.” They also added apparently unironically that the ban of Oxybenzone means “the health, safety and welfare of millions of Hawaii residents and tourists has been severely compromised”.

Not all sunscreens will be affected. In fact, there’s been a slow but steady increase in awareness concerning the issues surrounding toxic chemicals in cosmetics. Smaller, independent companies have stepped in to provide what many of the bigger manufacturers seem to be missing: the demand for cosmetics that don’t harm you or the planet.

Tom Bissell is the owner of Solid Sun Logistics, a skincare company he established from his kitchen in 2011. They primarily produce sunscreens without using any toxic chemicals and make the ingredients of their products available for all to see on their website. We caught up with Tom to talk about the cosmetics industry and the effect of toxic chemicals on ourselves, the oceans, and the wider environment.

FFL: Hi Thomas.

Thomas: Hey! This is good timing as I just got back from the fire station.

FFL:Wait… you’re also a firefighter?

Thomas:Yeah. I was fighting the fires in Mendocino last week.  

FFL: ….Oh shit.

Thomas: Yeah. I only work 10 days a month as a firefighter, but I have been deployed to some of California’s biggest natural disasters in recent history. I am also cross-trained in Urban Search and Rescue, Trench Rescue, and Confined Space Rescue. I also teach Community Emergency Response Team classes to citizens who want to be prepared and self-sufficient in emergencies. But I still find plenty of time to play Dad and be CEO of Solid.

FFL: Such a dark horse. Can you give a quick overview of what Solid Sun does?

Thomas: Sure. We make sustainable sunscreen and skin care products for outdoorsy people. All our ingredients are environmentally responsible, so they don’t harm you or the environment. Our t-shirts are all organic and made from recycled polyester.

FFL: Hmm. Where does one acquire recycled polyester?

Thomas: It comes from recycled bottles. But even if we want to pat ourselves on the back for using recycled materials when you start to learn about plastic recycling facilities in China, it’s like, “Wait, am I doing a good thing here?”

FFL: In what respect?

Thomas: Some of the recycling facilities, particularly ones based around smaller communities, use child labour.

FFL: Wow... that’s grim.

Thomas: Right. So now anyone we buy materials from in China needs to have ownership and transparency in terms of their own sourcing. Some of the places are baffled as to why we want to know the answer to certain questions.

FFL: What sort of questions?

Thomas: Like, “Where do you source your dye?” Or, “Are you just putting the excess dye into a river?” We’ve had a lot of doors close on us because they’re like, “You guys are a pain in the ass.” It’s not like we’re Patagonia or Nike; our order quantities are so small. It’s frustrating because you’re trying to do the right thing.

FFL: I get the impression that, in China, these questions probably don’t get asked very often.

Thomas: I think it’s still important to ask them, though. As far as our cosmetic products go, we wanted to do something completely eco-friendly and sustainable. Our whole mission is to respect yourself, respect the sun, respect the environment because we're out there all the time. We surf, we ski, we paddle. We do all these things that require a healthy outdoor environment, so let’s take responsibility for it.

FFL: Well said. Did you have a sort of lightbulb moment when it came to starting the company?

Thomas: My brother is a marine scientist, and my wife is a physician. They looked at the sunscreens I was using and they were like, “Come on, don’t use that crap.” So I started looking for better products, but I couldn’t really find anything. Then I started making my own.

FFL: Were you actually in your kitchen, just whipping up some sunscreen?

Thomas: That’s exactly what happened (laughs). I bought some cheap cookware, then found some basic sunscreen recipes. Then ordered the ingredients.

FFL: Ha! Really? I thought It’d be really complicated to make...

Thomas: At first, it was disastrous. I had to come to terms with the fact I’m not a chemist. I realized there’s a reason why people have PhDs in chemistry. I started interviewing chemists and manufacturers, trying to articulate what I wanted in a product line. I wanted total transparency.

FFL: I mean, the cosmetics industry, in particular, does not have a reputation for being transparent. So to start a fully transparent company in that industry, was that not a risk?

Thomas: Totally. I’ve always felt like I was taking a leap of faith. With the transparency thing, it was important to me that people could trust us. We list every single ingredient we use in our sunscreen on our website.

FFL: How bad are chemical-based sunscreens, really?

Thomas: They use a ton of toxic chemicals. If you go to a site called Environmental Working Group there is a consumer product database where you can check any cosmetic product and see its ingredients, then it’ll rate them on a scale of 1-10 based on how toxic they are. Our sunscreen is totally mineral. 95% of what’s out there is completely chemical.

FFL: And presumably, people are now starting to notice that certain sunscreens can be potentially toxic?

Thomas: There are way more people caring now. Hawaii recently banned the use of non-reef-safe sunscreen, which is a big deal. Oxybenzone is a chemical in most sunscreens, and people have known for years that it not only bleaches and kills coral, but negatively impacts all types of marine ecosystems. But the fact that a state has taken legislative initiative shows how seriously it’s being taken.

FFL: How did it ever get to this stage?

Thomas: Businesses never have to factor in the cost of the damage their products can do to people or the environment. I read an article yesterday that said there are one million plastic bottles produced every minute, and 91% will never get recycled. The LLC is designed specifically so no single person has to take responsibility. If stuff gets fucked up, companies close down and disappear and no one is held responsible.

FFL: In terms of the negative impact of chemicals from cosmetics on the ocean, what studies have been done?

Thomas: In 2015, it was published that Oxybenzone specifically, to the tune of one drop in six Olympic size swimming pools, can negatively affect living organisms. If 6% of your bottle of sunscreen is Oxybenzone, which isn’t unreasonable, then that’s a lot of Oxybenzone going into the ocean. Even at low concentrations, it causes a hormonal change in organisms, affecting how they reproduce. It can even cause fish to change sex.  

FFL: And its effect on humans?

Thomas: If you use a sunscreen with Oxybenzone in it, you’re putting known poison onto your skin. But the truth is that studies haven’t been done on humans. There are some pro surfers who don’t wear sunscreen for this reason. If you’re using chemical sunscreen every day, for your entire life, it will undoubtedly have an effect on you. When you apply sunscreen, it gets absorbed into your skin.

If you use a sunscreen with Oxybenzone in it, you’re putting known poison onto your skin. But the truth is that studies haven’t been done on humans. There are some pro surfers who don’t wear sunscreen for this reason.

FFL: Do you ever encounter deliberate misinformation? Like, people trying to put down sustainability...

Thomas: I once had someone tell me that using recycled plastics actually fills up landfill twice as fast as using virgin plastic because the failure rate among recycled plastics is twice as high.

FFL: Wait, is that actually true?

Thomas: It is such a stretch of a truth. It’s been proven in a lab that recycled plastic breaks down twice as fast as virgin plastic. But that’s still over a very long period, like hundreds of years. But you get told this stuff with a straight face: “If you buy virgin plastics you’re putting less waste in the landfill.” It’s astounding.

FFL: Some people.

Thomas: Yeah. Some people.

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