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Exclusive Interview: Pro Surfer Cyrus Sutton Develops Sunblock Safe for People and the Planet

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For professional surfer and Emmy-winning filmmaker Cyrus Sutton, creating his own sustainable sunblock not only came from a deep respect for the oceans but also for a reason that really hit close to home.

American director and professional surfer Cyrus Sutton. Photo credit: Anna Ehrgott

Writing for The Inertia, Sutton explained:

I started making my own sunblock after skin cancer nearly took my dad’s life in 2008. This event spurred me to look at solutions to protect my skin. I learned that the chemicals in sunblocks were linked to negative health effects in humans and coral reefs. Corals are incredibly sensitive to chemicals. It’s been shown in scientific literature that corals have shown abnormal bleaching with sunblock that’s a dilution of just 10 micrometers. That’s one millionth of a liter.

According to Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) ninth annual Sunscreen Guide, 80 percent of 1,700 sunscreens, SPF-rated moisturizers and lip balms, available on the market “offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients” such as the hormone disruptor oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A linked to skin damage.

Added to that, between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen leaches into our delicate coral reefs around the world every year. The oxybenzone found most sunscreens have been found to exacerbate coral bleaching, a devastating, human-caused factor contributing to world's worst coral die-off in history.

While there are a number of healthy, reef-safe sunscreens already on the market, Sutton's Manda Organic Sun Paste is unique in that it contains thanaka, a yellowish powder that comes from ground thanaka tree bark in Myanmar, as you can see in the video below from Manda's successful Kickstarter campaign.

The natural SPF has been used by the Burmese people for more than 2,000 years to protect their skin from the hot sun.

Sutton, who launched surf website Korduroy.tv, had been making homemade sunblock in his own kitchen and never thought about entering the sun care market until he was introduced to thanaka through his longtime friend and Korduroy collaborator Reis Paluso.

Sutton and his team created a formulation mixed with thanaka and seven other natural ingredients all of which are safe enough to eat, including organic cinnamon, organic cacao, organic shea butter, organic beeswax and organic coconut oil.

Manda's active ingredient, zinc oxide, is a natural mineral and powerful blocker of UVA rays—and is also Environmental Working Group’s first choice for sun protection.

Cyrus, however, noted on The Inertia that zinc itself is "really hard on the environment to mine and refine." He continued:

After testing various combinations of thanaka and zinc, we settled on a formula that uses 20 percent zinc and 10 percent thanaka. The quantity of zinc alone qualifies us for what the FDA considers a 30 SPF or greater sunblock. We feel that by adding thanaka and our other natural ingredients that this number is significantly higher.

The final product is a waterproof, sweatproof sunscreen that leaves an off-white tint on the skin, reminiscent of the chalky streaks you might have seen on lifeguards' noses years ago. Note that Manda is a physical sunscreen unlike a chemical sunscreen which is rubbed and absorbed into your skin.

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Ever the multi-tasker, Sutton took the time to answer some of EcoWatch's questions about his new sunscreen via email while sitting in his Sprinter van in Death Valley, California. The 33-year-old native Californian, who splits time living on the road and a 3-acre homestead in Washougal, Washington, is currently putting the finishing touches on his first feature documentary Island Earth from his solar-powered editing studio.

Sutton grew up in Southern California and divides his time on the road and his home in Washington state. Photo credit: Ryan Tatar

EcoWatch: Have you found that more people are looking for alternatives to chemical-based sunblock? If so, why do you think that is?

Sutton: I think our eyes are being opened to vast amounts of chemicals in the products that surround us. As consumers we are starting to second guess the marketing hype that we all grew up with. I think we're part of a backlash movement which is showing us that you can make products that are as or more effective as conventional ones without all of the chemicals. In terms of skin care and Manda, our skin is the largest organ in the body, it is responsible for respiration and elimination. Why would anybody want to put something on their skin that they couldn't eat?

EcoWatch: What are some things people are saying about Manda? How does it hold up after a long day in the sun?

Sutton: The response has been overwhelming. I didn't think people expected that something so simple could be so effective. Our Sun Paste is a targeted sun solution, which means you only apply it to your most sensitive areas. For most people that's their nose, lips, ears and cheeks. People have been sending us photos where they've applied Manda to a specific area like a scar and then applied a 30 SPF spray to the surrounding area. The area with our product at end of the day was not touched by the sun while the rest of their body was sunburned.

EcoWatch: Do you still make sunblock in your kitchen?

Sutton: I don't make sunblock in my kitchen anymore. My home brew could never match the recipe we've perfected.

EcoWatch: What are the other benefits of thanaka? Why isn't it currently used with any sun care products in the U.S.?

Sutton: Thanaka is used all over Southeast Asia as a holistic curative both topically and internally. I'm not sure why it is not used here. In my travels I've encountered all sorts of local medicines that have yet to be adopted by the West.

EcoWatch: Do you think that surfing or filmmaking has increased your appreciation of the ocean and the environment?

Sutton: Surfing is something that teaches you a rhythm of the natural world. To be good requires patience and respect. Filmmaking has allowed me to have in-depth conversations with recognized doctors, scientists and policy makers. What I've learned from these discussions is that the well-being of people and the planet is low on the list of priorities of companies who supply the majority of products we consume. As a surfer and a filmmaker, I think that it is my duty to create something that not only respects people and the environment but also hopefully shifts the way business is done.

EcoWatch: What's the one product/gadget you can't live without?

Sutton: My stove and pots. Otherwise I'd be eating out of cans. You can't live on the road very long eating out of cans.

EcoWatch: Who's your eco-hero and why?

Sutton: My eco heroes are Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture founders. Permaculture is a design science that combines modern technology with indigenous wisdoms to create not just sustainable but regenerative blueprints for human societies. It's been proven in all climates and just needs more people to participate. It was born as a reaction to the protest movements of 60's and 70's. Instead of protesting what we don't want, they researched the cultures and societies over history that were truly sustainable and applied them to today.

I love this quote by Mollison: "The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10 percent of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter."

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