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Where Did Sunscreen Come From?

These days, there is a mind-boggling array of sun protection products on the market, from light tanning oils to broad-spectrum high-SPF sunscreens made with nanoparticles. But protecting yourself from the harmful effects of the sun’s rays wasn’t always as easy as heading to your nearest drugstore. Humans have long devised ways to minimize sunburn, including using natural sunscreens of dubious efficacy, but how did we get from slathering ourselves in clay to the advanced sunscreens of today? Read on for a brief history of this beach bag essential.

How Tanning Got Hot

Four 1920s women walking on the beach in swimsuits and carrying parasols.
Credit: Reg Speller/ Getty Images

Ideas about desirable skin tones have evolved over the centuries, and for many years in Europe and elsewhere, racist and classist beauty ideals meant that bronzed skin wasn’t popular. In addition to abominable ideas about the skin tone one might be born with, tanned skin was associated with working people who had to spend long hours outside in the sun. Meanwhile, European upper classes attempted to signal their leisurely lifestyle by trying to maintain light-colored skin. For some, the look was achieved by staying out of the sun or by wearing wide-brimmed hats and carrying a parasol to deflect the sun’s rays.

Clothing was not the only method of sun protection employed before the development of commercial sunscreens, though. In antiquity, a variety of natural extracts were applied as sunscreens to maintain the desired pallor — and to protect from painful, dangerous burns. The Ancient Greeks used olive oil (which modern analysis suggests has a SPF of around eight), and the Egyptians employed extracts from rice bran, jasmine, and clay to prevent sunburn.

By some accounts, the fashion for tanning began after one particularly world-changing event in 1923 — Coco Chanel accidentally got sunburned on a cruise in the Mediterranean. Her new look ignited a trend for sunbathing in the fashionable resorts of the French Riviera, and a golden tan soon became desirable in other parts of Europe, North America, and beyond.

The First Modern Sunscreens

British Formula One racing driver Jackie Stewart applying sunscreen to his wife on the beach in 1965.
Credit: Victor Blackman/ Daily Express/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

By the early 20th century, doctors began to advise patients suffering from tuberculosis, rickets, and other diseases to “take the sun” as a cure. Combined with the new fashion for tanning, this created the need for a product that would enable people to tan without burning.

One early sunscreen pioneer was the founder of the cosmetics firm L’Oreal, Eugene Schueller. He was a fair-skinned chemist who enjoyed sailing but suffered in the heat of the French sun. Schueller asked Loreal’s chemists to come up with a product that could prevent sunburn, and in 1935 they presented the result: a tanning oil that used the chemical compound benzyl salicylate as a UV filter. The product, named Ambre Solaire, was soon launched to much fanfare, and the advertising campaigns featuring tanned female bodies fixed the image of a golden tan as a luxury status symbol.

Around the same time, Austrian chemistry student Franz Greiter was getting sunburned while mountaineering in the Alps. This led him to develop a sunscreen he named “Gletscher Creme” (or “Glacier Creme”), which was launched in 1946 as one of the first commercial sunscreens by the company Piz Buin (named after the alpine peak where Greiter suffered sunburn). Gletscher Creme became a popular sunscreen in Europe despite only having an SPF of two, demonstrating that the development of effective sun protection still had a long way to go.

Meanwhile in the U.S., airman and pharmacist Benjamin Green began developing a sunscreen after experiencing sun overexposure while fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Green used a horribly sticky red jelly called red veterinary petrolatum, which was known as “red vet pet.” Despite its gloopy texture and lurid color, the sunscreen was effective, and became more pleasant when mixed with a little cocoa butter and coconut oil. The formula was purchased by Coppertone, who began selling it as “Coppertone Girl” and “Bain de Soleil” in the 1950s, bringing the first commercial sunscreens to the American market.

The Invention of SPF

Suntan products on a white shelving unit, circa 1978.
Credit: Universal History Archive/ Getty Images

In the 1960s, evidence that sunbathing was associated with skin cancer began to stack up in the medical literature. This encouraged a shift from products meant to allow tanning without burning to an emphasis on the need for protection from the sun in general. The mountaineering chemist Franz Greiter was once again at the vanguard of sunscreen development, and created the concept of Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, in 1962.

The SPF number is designed to tell you how long it will take for the sun to burn your skin, assuming your sunscreen is applied evenly and correctly. For example, if an individual would normally burn after being out in the sun for 10 minutes, a sunscreen with a SPF of 10 should offer protection for 100 minutes of sunbathing without burning (10 minutes x Sun Protection Factor 10 = 100 minutes). If the person would normally burn in 15 minutes, SPF 10 should offer 150 minutes of protection. The introduction of SPF revolutionized the sunscreen industry and gave consumers a better understanding of how sunscreen worked as well as how often products needed to be reapplied to stay effective.

As the century progressed, scientists began to realize that UVB was not the only harmful ray and concluded that UVA also contributed to sun damage. The first products to combine protection against UVA and UVB rays (now known as “broad-spectrum”) were introduced in the late 1970s, but at that time SPFs (which primarily refer to UVB) only went as high as 15. Stronger sunblocks made using titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which could protect from UVA rays as well as UVB, later came onto the market, but were often thick and white in color, leaving a visible white cast wherever they were applied.

Sunscreen Today

Close up unrecognized woman spraying sunscreen on her legs.
Credit: RuslanDashinsky/ iStock

The global market for sunscreen is projected to reach nearly $17 billion by 2027. The technology of sunscreens has come a long way, and today the use of nanoparticles makes them often invisible and easily absorbed, allowing for the use of minerals while avoiding the pasty look. And although chemical sunscreens are now often waterproof and can last for many hours, there is a general trend back toward mineral-based sunscreens, which can be kinder to the oceans and coral reefs. (Some chemical agents in sunscreens can cause coral bleaching or die-offs.) As the impact of climate change intensifies, it becomes more important than ever to use a daily sunscreen to protect your skin, so you can enjoy nature's beauty and stay healthy at the same time for many years to come.

Are Higher SPF Sunscreens More Effective?

The introduction of SPFs raises a question — are higher numbers always better? In theory, using a sunscreen with a higher SPF offers more protection. If you normally burn in 20 minutes, using an SPF of 50 should give you 1,000 minutes (more than 16 hours) of sunning time burn-free. However, skin cancer experts say that high SPF sunscreens can create a false sense of security — people may avoid re-applying, fail to wear hats, and generally spend more time in the sun than they would with a lower SPF, thus ending up with more UV damage. Then there’s the fact that many people don’t apply enough sunscreen, and don’t apply it evenly, meaning that real-world SPFs are rarely what the bottle or tube indicates.

In general, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher any time you’re going out for some extended time in the sun. Remember to apply your sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside, and to re-apply every two hours and after swimming — regardless of the SPF. (Despite “waterproof” claims, no sunscreens are truly waterproof.)

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