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Born under the blazing Australian sun, SunButter is our new favourite reef-safe, plastic-free SPF50

Photography By SunButter

Wedged together on a park bench on the Mornington Peninsula, hair still damp from their morning surf, Sacha Guggenheimer and Tom Hiney are telling me about their journey from environmentalism to environmentally conscious business. 

Despite the virtual nature of our interview, it’s hard not to notice the chemistry between the pair, though I soon realise this relationship transcends a romantic partnership: they’re equally passionate business partners. Guggenheimer and Hiney are the founders of SunButter Skincare, a purpose-led business manufacturing reef safe SPF50 sunscreen and zinc, sold in reusable and recyclable aluminium tins.

“We were working on whale shark boats on the Ningaloo Reef when we met and ended up doing a season together,” says Guggenheimer, a marine biologist specialising in marine mammal research and acoustics. Hiney, who studied tropical ecology, was managing a conservation island in Seychelles before he came to work in Australia.

Through their work, the pair had seen firsthand the effects of pollution on marine ecosystems and learned about the threat to coral reefs posed by toxic chemicals like oxybenzone found in traditional sunscreens. “We were working on this World Heritage listed reef and spending eight hours in the water every day for months and we realised we couldn’t wear sunscreen [that was impacting marine life] anymore,” Guggenheimer says. “At the time, there were really no alternatives on the market.”

“Chemical sunscreen pollution is one of those sneaky pollutants you can miss,” Hiney adds. “More and more research is coming out about how damaging some of those chemicals can be to the environment.” Despite being novices to skincare product manufacturing and development, they decided to begin formulating their own reef safe blends, free from oxybenzone and octinoxate.

SunButter started out in their home, the pair making small batches of mineral-based sunscreen and distributing them to friends and family. Their reef safe sunscreen quickly gained traction and before long, a burgeoning business was underway. SunButter is now stocked on the shelves of more than 500 Australian retailers and in a small number of overseas stores.

“Friends and total strangers have reached out to tell us they love our product,” Hiney says. “People were also so glad to find something packaged in a reusable, recyclable tin rather than a plastic tube.”

Determined not to use plastic packaging, they spent 18 months convincing manufacturers that their product could be packaged in an aluminium tin.

The only active ingredient in SunButter is zinc oxide, containing no nanoparticles. However, they still had to undertake extensive testing to appease reservations from manufacturers and ensure SunButter’s formulation was compatible with the environmentally-friendlier aluminium packaging – which it was.

Neither romanticise the years spent perfecting SunButter but they are unequivocal about what made it all possible: their partnership. “We’re lucky we work so well together and we are able to support each other,” Guggenheimer says. “We complement each other really nicely,” Hiney adds. “Sacha is incredibly creative and artistic. I’m hopeless with that, absolutely terrible. But I am really good at lists and logistics.”

The partners didn’t come into this enterprise with a bucketload of money, business acumen or knowledge of chemistry. Instead, they came into it with the best intention for the planet and for people. On that note, Hiney says: “I’m so proud that we’ve persevered and managed to create this beautiful product that’s safe for the ocean, safe for humans and isn’t packaged in plastic.”

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