A market gap and melanoma scares were the catalysts for Coola Suncare, a sunscreen specialist that’s spread its natural products throughout spas, beauty specialty chains, television home shopping and mass-market stores.

“When my parents were diagnosed with melanoma, it forced me to take a really hard look at my own bad sun habits,” said Coola founder and chief executive officer Chris Birchby. In the process of changing his habits, he continued, “I started looking for an organic sunscreen. I couldn’t find anything I liked on the market, and I thought, ‘Oh, this might be a great opportunity.’”

Birchby had no chemistry or skin-care experience prior to launching Coola. His resume included stints as a painter and professional poker player, not the most traditional entries into beauty, but he’d always had a passion for the beach. Even during graduate school at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., he lived in Venice to be close to the waves.

“We say at Coola, the only board meeting we like and really the only board meeting we ever have is on one of these,” said Birchby, showing a surfboard hanging the wall at the Carlsbad, Calif., headquarters. He added, “We just want to create a very wellness-oriented company where it’s a lot of fun.”

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In the maturing natural sunscreen segment, Coola has worked hard to define customer perceptions. It’s trademarked the phrases Farm to Face, Plant Protection and Solar Powered. More than 97 percent of Coola’s base formula is certified organic, and Birchby highlighted the brand relies on GMO-free ingredients grown by local producers. “We can say unequivocally that our sunscreens are just as effective or more effective than any other sunscreens,” he said.

While staying true to its sun-care heritage, Coola is pushing its assortment beyond standard sunscreens to break into women’s cosmetics bags. It’s introduced a lip range called Mineral Liplux with SPF 30 and Makeup Setting Spray with SPF 30, which Birchby called the first setting spray of its kind with sun protection. “It answers the question for women: How do you apply sunscreen over your makeup?” he said. “This has been for us a big breakthrough product.”

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