At 44.48 degrees north of the equator, Vermont isn't exactly known for its blistering rays of the sun -- a few recent days excepted. So what's a worldwide sunblock manufacturer doing in Burlington? Turns out that Dave Schmidt, the 45-year-old co-founder and general manager of Himaya, is busy figuring out new ways to keep outdoorsy types from burning to a crisp with waterproof and sweatproof formulas that melt into the skin -- even underwater -- but last for hours.
Schmidt grew up near Albany and now lives in Williston. After 17 years working at Burton, he left his V.P. post in 2003 to launch Himaya -- it means "protection" in Swahili -- with a partner in Innsbruck, Austria. The sunblock's product testers include dozens of the planet's top adventure athletes, such as Dave Watson of Burlington, who smears on the stuff for his ascents of Everest. Himaya even has its own "Coppertone Girl" -- Colchester triathlete Kim Loeffler, who wears Himaya in Hawaii and Lake Placid Ironman competitions. Sold at SkiRack and other local stores, it's also available to regular mortals.
As thunderheads loomed in the distance on a recent morning, Seven Days pulled Schmidt out of his office adjacent to the Burlington Bike Path to shed some light on the sunscreen business.
SEVEN DAYS: With your location, do you find that curious people come in to see what's going on?
DAVID SCHMIDT: Oh, yeah, we've had a few oddballs. I had one lady try to convince me that you don't need sunscreen if you take care of your body and do all the right things and eat the right foods and whatever. There are a variety of conspiracy theories in regards to pretty much anything. Sunscreen has its share. But by applying sunscreen, you're potentially lowering your risk of skin cancer and preventing your skin from burning and aging.
SD: I'm feeling a little guilty about my tan.
DS: Sunscreen is going to protect you from about 90 percent of the UV spectrum, and that's if you follow the rules and reapply -- and nobody's perfect. Your body does have a natural protective mechanism, and that's what the tan is.
SD: How did you get into the sunscreen business?
DS: My partner in Austria had actually started Himaya a year before I left Burton, and then mutual friend put us in touch. For the U.S. launch of Himaya, we had to reformulate a bit, because sunscreens are regulated by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug and the products weren't certified. There are a lot of sunscreen filters available in the world -- 300 -- but the FDA has approved 17.
SD: So are there magic ingredients out there that Americans aren't getting in their sunscreen?
DS: There are no magic ingredients, but there are better UVA ingredients out there that haven't been approved yet, and there are ingredients that are more photo-stable than we're allowed to use. We're just waiting.
SD: How did you decide to target the water-sport and winter-sport markets?
DS: There is no clear player in sunscreen in the U.S. in sports. The surfers are not sponsored by sunscreen companies. That's just mind-blowing. The same with snowboarders, these guys are out there in intense environmental conditions all day and they don't have a brand they can lean on. It's certainly not the Coppertone Sport and the Banana Boat sport. And the usage of sunscreen in the age groups we're targeting is incredibly low. It's frightening; it's about 34 percent in ages 18 to 35, I think. We don't try to use scare tactics in our marketing, but skin cancer is one of the leading causes of death in women between the ages of 25 and 35. So there's a disconnect going on.
SD: Why are young people so bad about sunscreen?
DS: It's laziness, it's that you still want the tans. Kids want the raccoon eyes from their goggles as a status symbol. A lot of it is, when you're young, you're invincible, you don't understand that by the time you turn 40, parts of your body start to not work as well as they did, that your skin is a vital asset, it's your largest living organ and you need to take care of it.
SD: What about SPF?
DS: We start at 15, and then we have SPF 30, 45 and 60. The FDA did absolutely no good when they said at one point they were going to limit it to an SPF of 30. The curve diminishes, but for us, the higher SPFs make sense because the athletes that we're giving it to are climbing to the top of Everest, or going to Tavarua and surfing at noontime, and they have a nose that's been burnt 1000 times before, and that nose needs that small, incremental difference between the 45 and the 60. We launched 60 last January, and it's quickly become one of our best-selling products.
SD: And how is Himaya different from other sunscreens?
DS: Our focus has been based on zinc oxide. People haven't liked it in the past because it leaves a white residue on your skin. But now with newer technology they can get that particle size to one that's transparent to the visible eye but still on your skin. That gives you the broadest coverage against UVA, which ages the skin, and UVB, which burns the skin. It's harmless stuff; it has no toxicity record. It's diaper ointment; it's what you slap on your baby's butt.
DS: Yeah. So, we start with the zinc oxide, which you don't find in too many sunscreens right now. It's a physical block, so a surfer or a runner in a 9-hour race is not going to have to reapply. When Kim finished the Ironman last October, she said that it was the first time she didn't blister on her skin. She got color, but she didn't get fried. To an athlete, that's critical, because if you get burned, your performance is going to deteriorate. You could claim that Himaya is a performance-enhancing drug, I guess.
SD: What is it like being a sunscreen company in Vermont?
DS: Sunshine's limited, but skin cancer rates are pretty high. It's just where we like to live. California's only an airplane ride away. And this gives me the opportunity to go to some pretty cool places.
SD: But without fragrances in Himaya, you're not going to feel like you're in the tropics when you put this on, eh?
DS: Yeah, it's not going to be coconut. If you're into that, you gotta go buy something else.
SD: Are you more cautious about the sun these days?
DS: Oh, yeah. When you have a lot of sunscreen on your bathroom counter, you think, "Oh, I gotta put that on." That's where you need to keep your sunscreen. It shouldn't be in your beach bag, it should be in your bathroom.
SD: So are you one of those parents who slather sunscreen all over their kids?
DS: Well, I've got two blond, two very fair-skinned boys, and I don't think they've ever had a sunburn.