Rooted in Hawaiian culture and respect for the Earth, the Asian-owned skincare brand is doing things right.

By Marissa Lee.

Koa founders Hiro Shinn, Ty McLaren, and Kapono Chung are everything the perfect skincare CEOs should be: SPF aficionados, facial-care fanatics, and, respectfully, know-it-alls when it comes to caring for your skin. Inspired by Hawaii with first-hand knowledge of living among the elements (Hawaii is home to 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones), the three know a thing or two about how to keep your skin happy.

Designed to include all consumers while sharing Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, Koa is a sustainable skincare brand for everyone under the sun. Mission spoke with Shinn, McLaren, and Chung about how the Hawaiian lifestyle influences skincare, Asian representation in the beauty sphere, and more.

Marissa Lee: Can you tell us a bit about what the typical Hawaiian lifestyle looks like in relation to your skin? How do you feel you factor that into the Koa products?

Ty McLaren: Obviously, Hawaii has really beautiful beaches, and people in general do a lot of outdoor activities. Even if you’re not, you’re still spending a lot more time in the sun than people in most places. Three hundred and twenty days of sun starts adding up, and growing up there, sunscreen was always a huge deal. Also, Hiro and I are big fans of surfing, and that also takes a toll on your skin in general.

When formulating the products, we wanted to create products that would work in a wide range of environments. Hawaii is super diverse in terms of climate zones, so it’s the perfect place to test drive all these products.

ML: What Hawaiian cultural practices do you incorporate into your products?

TM: The aspect of Hawaiian culture that I think drives the brand is the connection to nature. Living on an island, you’re very insulated, and you rely on the island to live. There’s a heavy emphasis in Hawaiian culture on taking care of the land. There’s a phrase in Hawaiian, “malama aina,” which means “care for the land,” and it really encapsulates the idea that we’re guests here on the land and it’s our responsibility to take care of it.

We’re obviously not perfect when it comes to sustainability, but we do the best we can. We’re always working to do things better. Right now, we’re working to re-package to try to move away from virgin plastics. We have an emphasis on lowering our carbon footprint and being carbon neutral as a company through carbon offsets. Whenever we make decisions as a company, it’s from the point of view of, “how can we do the least harm [to the Earth]?”

Koa founders Hiro Shinn, Ty McLaren, and Kapono Chung

ML: What product-specific elements do you implement for ecosystem preservation?

TM: In the case of sunscreen, Hawaii is by far the most progressive state in terms of legislation around what chemicals can be used. The FDA currently only recognizes titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as safe UV filters, but they still allow manufacturers to use chemical SPFs. There’s also proprietary technology involved that boosts antioxidant activity. We only use zinc oxide in our sunscreens, which is shown to be reef-safe. We have spent a ton of time trying to understand how to make a mineral zinc oxide formula that doesn’t feel goopy but still gets the job done.

ML: What’s your view of the unisex skincare market? What role do you hope to play in it?

TM: When we started building the brand, and Kapono really had a big hand in this decision, [we wanted to be] a men’s brand without being stereotypically hyper-masculine. We wanted to present a different take on men’s skincare and present it in a less masculine way, which lent itself super well to transitioning to a unisex brand.

Kapono Chung: What we really wanted to do was get folks to start investing in skincare at a younger age. Marketing has gendered skincare in general, but we all have very similar skin. Everyone can protect their skin the same way. We felt like we needed to do something that was: one, not hypermasculine, and two, not excluding any genders at all.

ML: When it comes to the representation of your Asian culture in the skincare and beauty industry, what do you hope to offer?

TM: We’re proud to be building this as an Asian-owned and Asian-inspired brand. When it comes to Asian skincare in particular, there’s this level of complication, and it’s intimidating. There are these brands that make fantastic products, but the routine is 12 steps. We want to show people that these are products inspired by our Asian heritage and our Hawaiian roots, and it doesn’t need to be super complicated.

ML: What have you learned throughout the creation of your brand? Not only from a business standpoint, but also from a friendship and cultural standpoint?

KC: For me, this is about a real connection with my personal heritage. I’m part-Hawaiian, part-Korean, and [Ty and Hiro] are part-Japanese, and it’s about diving into that and understanding where our heritage stems from. You have to know that in order to understand what your skin does. We made the decision to be more Hawaiian, and be a brand from Hawaii, yet we try to make the distinction that we’re not a Hawaiian brand, but a brand from Hawaii. We do our best to take a lot of the elements that are from [Hawaii]—the beauty, the connection to nature, the multiculturalism of it—and embody that in our brand.

Image credit: Koa