When she was at San Ramon Valley High School in the 1980s, Christie Covarrubias worshipped the sun as much as any California teen. But as an adult, when her cousin Renee died at age 32 of melanoma, the dangers of sun exposure hit home.
"She was six months younger than I was, and we grew up at Lake Tahoe. I remember us getting sunburned together," said Covarrubias, co-founder of Sun50, a company that sells protective clothing.
"I could not understand how this could happen to someone so young and healthy. It could have been me," she added. "Her passing definitely had an immediate impact on the way I raised my three daughters -- who were raised on the Santa Monica beaches -- wearing hats, swim shirts and sunscreen always."
Covarrubias graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1991, then worked for Southern California companies in business development or marketing roles. In 2010, the family moved to Minnesota, and Covarrubias was surprised to learn it has the country's third highest incidence of skin cancer.
"The statistics prove no one is exempt from the perils of skin cancer," Covarrubias said. "The good news is we can minimize our UV exposure by adhering to sun-safe practices, even on cloudy days. Skin cancer is 90% preventable if we look after ourselves diligently."
Covarrubias saw a need for sun protective clothing that is trendy, fits well, and is soft to the touch, but she said no one was providing it. She and husband Jim Lockhart decided to fill the void and founded Sun50, getting a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Their mission includes being socially and environmentally aware.
"We take a slow-fashion approach to the sourcing, manufacturing and sustainability," Covarrubias said. "The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world."
A search for a manufacturer brought them to Los Angeles.
"My husband and I went to the site where the clothes are made and met with the owner and the lead supervisor, and took a tour," she recalled.
The clothes are not inexpensive, but the workers are paid well and work in a healthy environment, she noted. Everything is hand-cut and sewn, plus there is minimum waste.
"When it is done overseas, over 80% goes into landfills," she said.
Sun50 uses eco-friendly fabrics like Tencel and organic cotton to reduce its carbon footprint and they are at least UPF 50, meaning only 2% of ultraviolet radiation can penetrate.
The first line came out in January, and Covarrubias was making presentations at 10 to 15 events a month. She was also working with 5-star hotels about selling her clothing. Then COVID-19 struck.
"When the pandemic came around, our production was halted," Covarrubias said. "They started making masks and hospital gowns. We were in full support of that."
Online sales at Sun50.co also slumped, but now business is returning.
"Our sales are up again -- people are starting to think about going on vacation or being outside on their boats and going for hikes," Covarrubias said. "Our best-selling item is the white beach shirt."
She said their bandanas are also popular.
"I have heard from customers they keep it in their purse and have an instant sun shield and face covering," she said. "They are pretty and washable and feel like silk."
And Sun50 has added masks to its offerings.
"We have done really well with the masks," Covarrubias commented. "I think they are here to stay."
Sun50 already had a partnership with Feeding America, but recent events spurred management to take more action.
During June, a portion of Sun50 sales are going to We Love Lake Street in Minneapolis to help rebuild businesses, many owned by immigrants; and to Eyekonz Field Hockey and Lacrosse, which uses these sports to teach life lessons to inner city girls and boys in Philadelphia.
"We can't ignore what happened," Covarrubias said. "There is an issue here. And it's our mantra: 'Love the skin you're in.'"
"We have always been about love your neighbor, but now it is more than ever so important," she added.