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What is the History of Sunscreen?

A person with a sunburn.
Doctors have found that children who wear sunscreen have lower incidences of developing skin cancer later in life.
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  • Written By: Cathy Rogers
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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Sunscreen might have been around longer than most of us realize. The first one appeared on the market in the late 1960s. Its purpose was to attempt to minimize the effects of ultraviolet light from the sun. It wasn’t until around 1972, however, that labeling of the sun protection factor, or SPF, was introduced in the U.S. These sunscreens, which were improved and modified over time, were designed to block ultraviolet-B radiation.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that researchers determined that although ultraviolet-B light initiates most skin cancers, ultraviolet-A rays also play a role in promoting skin cancer. So, in the early 1990s, sunscreens were improved to contain ultraviolet-A blockers via an ingredient called Parsol 1789. In the mid 1990s, ultramicronized zinc and titanium oxide were added to many versions.

Sources vary as to who invented the first sunscreen, but most acknowledge that Milton Blake, a South Australian chemist, experimented unsuccessfully with creating a sunburn cream in the early 1930s. However, the founder of L’Oreal cosmetic company, Eugene Schueller, also a chemist, found success where Blake did not and is often credited for inventing the first sunscreen in the 1930s. Other sources name Austrian scientist Franz Greiter as the inventor of sunscreen, a product named Glacier Cream. Greiter was inspired to create a product in 1946 to protect the skin from sunburn due to a burn he received while mountain climbing at Piz Buin, on the Swiss-Austrian border, eight years prior.

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Even others attribute the invention to Benjamin Green. In the 1940s, Green, a Miami, Florida physician, prepared a red jellylike substance in his own kitchen and then tried its effectiveness on his own bald head. Green was interested in protecting the WWII soldiers stationed in the South Pacific. After the war, Green continued to experiment with his formula until he created what became known as Coppertone suntan cream in 1944. Coppertone suntan cream, scented with jasmine, was the first consumer mass-produced sunscreen product.

Other important dates in sunscreen history include the invention of zinc cream in 1940. Over the years, many variations have developed: waterproof, spray-on, disappearing colored sunblock for kids, and day-long protection. The requirements for sunscreens vary by country.

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Discuss this Article

anon319593
Post 16

Alisha - are you a physicist? Since when does olive oil block UV light?

fBoyle
Post 15

I didn't realize sunscreen goes back to the 30s. Did soldiers in WWII use the sunscreen that Benjamin Green made?

donasmrs
Post 14

@LoriCharlie-- I agree with you, sunscreen has come a long way.

Recently doctors and scientists have learned that SPF below 30 doesn't do much. SPF above 50 doesn't provide additional benefits either. That's why companies that make sunscreen are not allowed to label their products above SPF 50 any longer.

SPF 50 is best, I generally aim for this amount when I purchase body and face sunscreen. I try to avoid SPF 15 because I don't think that does anything.

discographer
Post 13

I don't think that we can exactly say that sunscreen was invented. Many natural oils provide some protection from the sun. Olive oil, almond oil and coconut oil are ones I know about.

They don't prevent skin from getting darker, but they do provide protection against the damaging effects of sun rays that can eventually lead to skin cancer.

SZapper
Post 12

@JessicaLynn - Well, it did say the gentleman who invented the Glacier cream got his sunburn while climbing in the mountains. A lot of mountains are snowy, but the existence of snow doesn't prevent a sunburn. So maybe he got the idea to call it Glacier cream after the snowy mountain?

Or he might have been referring to the cooling effect of a glacier, as sort of the opposite of the sun? Either way, I don't think Glacier cream is around anymore. I know I've never seen any in the store.

Although judging from the fact that Coppertone has been around since the 1940's, it's not that far-fetched to think Glacier cream may still be available in Europe somewhere.

JessicaLynn
Post 11

I'm kind of surprised that one of the early sunscreens was called "Glacier cream." I know I don't really associate Glaciers with needing sun protection. It would have made more sense to call it "beach cream" or something like that. Most people now associate sunscreen with the beach!

LoriCharlie
Post 10

@KaBoom - I burn very easily too, so I'm also glad that sunscreen was invented. I think it's also great we have so many options for sunscreens these days. I'm sure the first sunscreens were kind of a one size fits all deal, but now the sunscreen section in most stores is pretty large!

You can choose what sun protection factor you want (I usually choose 30) and some sunscreens are even scented! There are also facial sunscreens available, which I like to use every day.

KaBoom
Post 9

I had no idea that so many different people worked on inventing UV sunscreen. I guess I'm not surprised that several different people identified sunburns as a problem and tried to think up a solution so people could stop getting sunburned. I'm also grateful to all those people, because I burn really easily.

My life would be miserable without sunscreen!

golf07
Post 8

Does the spray-on work just as well as a sunscreen cream? This is so much easier to apply, but I have always wondered if it is as effective.

I am not the best at remembering to wear sunscreen. I have a darker complexion so I don't burn very easily, but I know that protection for people with my skin color is just as important as anyone else.

SarahSon
Post 7

I am a fanatic about making sure my kids have sunscreen protection. I have a history of skin cancer and can't say for sure it was because of sun exposure, but it always makes me wonder.

I don't like to be outside in the sun without some kind of sunscreen protection on. I love the waterproof sunscreen products that are on the market. I can put this on my kids and know they are still protected even though they are in the water.

Sometimes they get tired of me reapplying the sunscreen all the time, but I think someday they will realize how important this is, and will hopefully do the same thing as they get older.

sunshined
Post 6

I can still remember the distinct smell of Coppertone suntan cream, and now realize it must have been the jasmine that made this smell so unique.

I know that sunscreen products have greatly improved over the years. When I first started using Coppertone when I was younger there wasn't much to block the rays from the sun. It helped a little bit, but it wasn't nearly effective as most of the sunscreen products are today.

bagley79
Post 5

I was a teenager during the 70s and don't remember sunscreen being very popular during that time. Instead of using something like sunscreen when we were outside in the sun, we would use a combination of baby oil and iodine.

This was supposed to help us tan faster and was probably one of the worst things we could do to our skin. Now I use makeup and moisturizer that have sunscreen in them.

I am doing everything I can to try and reverse some of the earlier damage I did to my skin because I didn't wear sunscreen.

anon212825
Post 4

@dBuckley212: Parasol is Spanish for beach/sun umbrella and they are still used on beaches across Europe as an added defense against the sun.

BioNerd
Post 2

@dbuckley212

I think that's not the case, parasols went out of style a long time ago, and people still capitalize on shade and beach umbrellas.

dbuckley212
Post 1

Perhaps it was the parasol industry which realized they could make a greater profit off of manufacturing expendable sunscreen to everyone. In any case I'm sure it is part of what rendered them obsolete.

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