How Coconut Became Summer’s Signature Scent

In 1965, high-school chemistry teacher Ron Rice managed to score a free ticket to Hawaii. There, he ventured to the back side of the islands, where, as an outsider, he recalls not being welcome. “I was kind of taking a chance with my life,” he says over the phone from Daytona Beach, Fla. But, as it turns out, the risk was worth it. Rice observed women cutting up baby coconuts and rubbing the contents on their skin, and it sparked the idea for Hawaiian Tropic, a suntan oil. When he returned home, he came up with a formula and then, in his garage, mixed the ingredients in a garbage can using a broomstick. “I thought, ‘I can make one that is better than what’s on the market,’” says Rice, now 77. “It was all natural and had a great fragrance.” A lifeguard during the summer, he peddled his product at pools and on beaches, and it eventually took off. But if you could pinpoint one quality that won over a generation of sunbathers and made Hawaiian Tropic a success, it would be its coconut scent. “It was the most important thing,” says Rice.

These days, coconut water, milk and oil are ubiquitous in skincare, hair care and makeup because of their beauty and health benefits, but Hawaiian Tropic was likely one of the earliest brands to really capitalize on the mental benefits of the scent—its association with aspirational, tropical locales and the happy, stress-melting emotions tied to summer. Rice even recalls receiving letters from customers saying they’d pour the oil in their bath during the winter months. “They’d smell it and lie back and dream about being at the beach.”

Shop coconut everything from highlighter to facial mist: