Reef-Safe: Why Saving the Reefs in Hawaii Became My Rallying Cry

By Nova Covington

As reported in SWAAY Magazine

When I started my reef-safe skincare company, Goddess Garden, I had no idea that 13 years later, I’d be invited by the Governor of Hawaii to attend the historic signing of the first sunscreen bill banning harmful chemicals which damage the coral reefs. As the founder and CEO of a reef-safe mineral sunscreen brand that is a Certified B Corporation® and a certified woman-owned business (WBENC), our mission is built into every decision we make. We’ve always taken a stand to do what’s best for people and the planet.

I can’t thank the people of Hawaii and Governor Ige enough for doing the same thing! Having just returned from the ceremony in Hawaii where the governor signed the chemical sunscreen ban (SB2571) into law, banning chemical sunscreens oxybenzone and octinoxate from use or sale, starting in January of 2021, I want to wrap my arms around the entire state and give it a hug! I guess it makes sense that I was affectionately referred to as a reef-hugger in the media. I’ll happily embrace my new title, right along with the reefs.

Mobilizing to save the reefs

As I told SWAAY in 2017, I was inspired to create my skincare company after my baby daughter, Paige, had allergic reactions to the synthetic chemicals in sunscreens and other bodycare products. I made my own products for her, replacing the synthetic ingredients with all-natural ones. While looking for better ingredients that were safe for her, I learned a lot about how these same synthetic chemicals affect the environment—and specifically the coral reefs. That’s when saving the coral reefs really became my rallying cry.

Our company worked hard to support this bill. I provided testimony, wrote to legislative leaders and participated in awareness campaigns. Goddess Garden provided monetary donations and free reef-safe sunscreen. We supplied studies when the opposition said there wasn’t enough research. Goddess Garden sunscreens are being sold in 25,000 stores, so when the argument switched to a lack of available options, we provided product distribution reports to counter it. This ban took a lot of people, banding together, to come to fruition.

Apparently industry lobbyists spent more than 16 million dollars to fight the ban. That’s a lot of money from the opposition, so we had to work together and invest with our time and our voices. I started a petition with Care2 to give everyone a chance to be heard. We gathered and sent nearly 55,000 signatures to Governor Ige, urging him to sign the bill into law. I’ll never forget meeting him at the signing ceremony. When I told him I was the one who created the petition, he laughed a little and thanked me. He was grateful that I had brought awareness to the issue and had helped make so many voices heard. That moment will always stand out as a milestone in my career. It felt so exhilarating to be part of the process, to stand up and fight for what I believed in, and help other people do the same thing.

Nova and Governor Ige at the signing of the sunscreen ban into law.
Nova and Governor Ige at the signing of the sunscreen ban into law.

A reef-safe movement in the sunscreen industry

In his speech at the ceremony, Governor Ige said, “By signing this measure today, we will become the first in the world to enact this type of strong legislation to actively protect our marine ecosystem from toxic chemicals.” When he said that, I knew this was the beginning of a movement. To be there to see it happen—and have a role in the process—was incredible! Hawaii is leading the way, and there is already lots of talk about other states following suit.

What’s exciting is that it’s not just states that are getting on board. Some of the big sunscreen brands are taking this very seriously.  My company was featured in a recent piece in Fast Company that also mentioned CVS’s plan to reformulate their private-label sunscreens of SPF 50 and below to be oxybenzone- and octinoxate-free. Some companies are just brushing it off, but if even a few of these big brands switch to reef-safe formulations, it’s a major win!

Of course, I want Goddess Garden to be the brand of choice. We’ve always offered reef-safe formulas, and we’re always going to go above and beyond to ensure our products are safe for people and the planet. But, our ultimate goal is to keep these chemicals off the skin and out of the water. If these ingredients aren’t as prevalent on the shelves—mission accomplished!

Rallying around positive change

To me, it feels like our efforts have made a real difference in the world. For 13 years we’ve been educating the public about how these chemicals effect people and reefs. It’s been a real rally by every definition of the word. We’ve been offering a solution to people who often don’t know there’s a problem. We have done a lot of education and we feel people have a right to know what they’re putting on their skin and in the environment. It’s been a labor of love, driven by a need to protect the things I care about most.

When Hawaii took a stand and banned these chemicals, they simplified the chemical conversation to five simple words: They’re so bad they’re banned. I see this as similar to what happened with BPA. There are people who don’t know how BPA works and why it’s harmful. They just know it is and that they should avoid it. We don’t think people should have to have a degree in chemistry to shop for sunscreen. They should just be able to trust their products are safe for people and the planet. Hawaii is taking a necessary step and making that a lot easier for everyone.

Thanking Hawaii

The signing ceremony was the culmination of both a dream and a vision. I fell in love with the ocean years ago when my husband Paul and I traveled to Baja California, Mexico for our first anniversary in our old VW van.

And Mexico is where we first learned some marine sanctuaries were not allowing chemical sunscreens because of what they were doing to the reefs. My husband, Paul, who is a biochemist, really dug into the research on those ingredients. At the time, he said that stuff was so bad it could—and should—be banned. And now, it is!

So again, thank you, Hawaii, from the bottom of my reef-hugging heart. I can’t wait to see where this reef-safe movement will take us, and I’m excited to ride the wave, especially now that that wave will be free from oxybenzone and octinoxate!

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