A conversation with UJI Sunscreen: the ecological alternative to chemical sunscreens you were just waiting for


Summer holidays are fast approaching and whether you have booked a holiday in the mountains or in a seaside resort, you’ll need sunscreen to shield your skin from the rays of the sun and protect against the risks of burns and skin cancer. 

Reefs at risk

What most of you probably ignore is that the majority of sunscreens currently available in the market cause major damages to the marine eco-system. A research conducted in 2015 by the University of Florida showed that every year about 14.000 tons of sunscreen end up in the ocean and threaten the coral reef. In particular, oxybenzone and octinoxate two powerful sunscreens filters used in creams, disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles and are responsible for its bleaching. The popular beaches of Hawaii are one of the areas with the highest concentrations of these harmful chemicals, which led Hawaii’s Parliament to pass on May 1 a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing these two components. This is the first case of a State to pass such strict measures, which might become the law by 2021. Laura Thielen, senator of Hawaii, declared that “people need to realize that even if they don’t go swimming after applying sunscreen when they go back home and take a shower, the water still flows into the ocean. So, it doesn’t matter if you use sunscreens at the beach or at home, it’s at the same way harmful for our corals”.

Keeping our reefs safe

It is ok to protect our skin’s health and to prevent it from ageing, however, when using certain products comes to the detriment of the environment, a change in attitudes and in purchase behaviours becomes necessary. The good news is that there are already many environmental-friendly options available in the market. Mineral-based sunscreens are well-known for using titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that are safer, both for people and for coral, and don’t include any toxic chemical.

Among them, there is UJI Sunscreen, an amazingly innovative product which was originally developed by Fleur Himmler, co-founder of the brand and fellow Bocconi student.

How did you come up with the idea of creating UJI Sunscreen?

It all started one year ago when I was 21 and the other co-founders, my brother and our best friend, were 24. My brother and I are diving instructors and we were working for the summer in Koh Tao, a small paradise island in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand. One night at the end of the season my brother asked me: “Do you think we'll still be diving instructors in 20 years?“ “In 20 years? There won’t be much fishes and corals to show to people!” This went out of my mouth and we were shocked to think about it. We started diving when we were kids, the ocean is our happy place. So we thought about doing something or at least trying to do something to protect this fragile ecosystem, and its threatened inhabitants to allow the future generations to enjoy the treasures of the ocean.

Why did you choose the name UJI Sunscreen?

We were looking for a name that included the idea of sun and ocean but we couldn’t come up with anything that sounded good. One day I was googling some words connected to the marine field and their translations in different languages. Among them, there was UJI, which means water in Albanese. We liked it because it was simple to say for people and it was also easy when we had to register the brand name since it’s a random word.

At which stage is the project?

Right now we are done with R&D. We still have some extra tests to run because we want to be 100% sure about the impact of the sunscreen on the marine life. The big milestone is the crowdfunding, which we hope to open for 45 days by the end of June. The most expensive part is the production, indeed around 80% of the crowdfunding will be just for the first production. We will sell online and our biggest market will be Europe, on which we will focus for a couple years and as soon as we will be able to do the bigger volume, we’d like to enter the Asian market.

Which ingredients are used to make it safe for the environment?

When you want to make a sunscreen you have two options for the UV filters: chemical or mineral. Oxybenzone and octinoxate (chemical filters) are really toxic and besides being responsible for coral bleaching, they can alter the sex characteristics of fishes. Moreover, the effects on human health are incredibly bad: since they penetrate your skin, they can create allergies and skin reactions. It is now scientifically proven that some chemical filters have a similar structure to the estrogen hormones and mimic its action. Chemical filters are hormones disruptors and can lead to infertility issues, DNA damages or cancer. Although there is not full unanimity of the scientific community, a recent study has revealed that with one full-body application you’ll end up with the same amount of estrogens as a hormone therapy replacement, so imagine if you do four applications per day. UJI is a mineral sunscreen and relies on zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as UV filters. The advantage is that nothing gets into your body, it creates a layer on your skin and the UV rays are reflected. The protection is even better with mineral sunscreen and it’s safe for the environment and for your body.

What has the ocean taught you?

When people say that they want to work in the innovation sector, they think they should go to Google or Apple. Instead, I think they should become a diving instructor: the greatest innovations and technologies are in the sea. Apple has been doing R&D for forty years, nature for four billion years. For example, shark skin is the best material in the world against turbulences and Airbus has studied its composition and reproduced its features to make planes, while Speedo used it to minimize water resistance for the realization of swimsuits for the Olympics. Mussels produce the best adhesives in the world, no industry and technology so far would be able to do as good as them. What we all have to understand is that we have a lot to learn from nature. Nature and the ocean are like a library of knowledge and instead of reading it we are destroying it!

Why is the marine eco-system restoration such an important challenge?

Humans are co-responsible for this contamination, however, we also have the ability to help these fragile underwater ecosystems to heal.

If we lose coral reefs, we will have lost a vital ecosystem and also hurt the global economy since coral reefs are major tourist attractions that draw visitors from all over the world and are vital sources of income for local populations.

To support UJI Sunscreen’s crowdfunding campaign and remain updated on the project, visit: www.ujisunscreen.com and follow their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ujisunscreen/ .