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The History of Sunscreen

<p>Sunscreens have been used for millennia, and are still improving.</p>

Sunscreens have been used for millennia, and are still improving.


People have used sunscreen and sun protection for millennia. Natural protection, the melanin produced by melanocytes in the skin, increases with ultraviolet (UV) exposure in an attempt to shield cell nuclei from UV-induced DNA damage. Dark skin evolved in people living near the equator, where the sun is most intense year-round. Lighter skin, by contrast, developed in Northern climes partially because lighter skin more efficiently absorbs UV light, which converts the precursors of Vitamin D in the skin. As humans evolved and stayed relatively localized throughout their lives, ranges of melanin in the skin varied from heavily pigmented (and nearly completely resistant to sunburns) to nearly un-pigmented (and highly susceptible to burns).

Ideals of beauty have changed over the years. Sunscreen and sun-protection have been used to maintain beauty, whether that is judged to be light skin or less pigmentation, or less blotching and wrinkles caused by sun exposure.

Egyptians were the first  people known to use sunscreen, mostly for cosmetic reasons, since they considered light skin more translucent and beautiful. Ancient texts revealed that they applied rice bran extracts (Shaath) containing gamma oryzanol, which absorbs UV rays. Native Americans are known to have used the white powdery bark residue (bloom) of Aspen trees as a sunscreen centuries ago. It confers a sun protection factor of about 5, and is still used in wilderness survival.

Ultraviolet rays were discovered by the German scientist Johann Ritter in 1801. Previously, sunburns were believed to be caused by heat from the sun (infrared radiation). Infrared radiation had been discovered just 1 year prior, in 1800 by the astronomer Sir William Herschel. In 1820, the English scientist Everard Home performed experiments consisting of covering one of his hands with a dark cloth, while exposing both hands to sunlight. It seemed paradoxical that dark skin would develop in hotter climates. He concluded that melanin in darker skin provided protected from sun exposure by absorbing the damaging rays.

In 1878, Austrian Otto Veiel published use of tannin as a sunscreen. However, tannin stains skin, which limited its usefulness. In 1922, Earl Hausser and Wilhelm Vahle determined that sunburn is caused by UV rays between 280 and 315 nanometers (Roelandts).

Prior to 1920, clothing and hats that maintained modesty also offered sun protection. Umbrellas or parasoleils (literally “against the sun”) allowed the bearer to travel in portable shade.  However, by the 1920’s, Coco Chanel famously espoused freeing of women from corsets and confining clothing. She also promoted tanning as healthy and liberating.

The first commercially available sunscreen was produced in 1928, an emulsion of PABA benzyl salicylate and benzyl cinnamate.

In the 1930’s, chemist Eugene Schueller (who went on to found L’Oreal) developed a sunscreen. At about the same time, Austrian Franz Greiter developed “Gletscher Crème” (Glacier Cream) after having been sunburned in 1938 while climbing Mt. Piz Buin. Both men are often credited as the founder of modern sunscreen. In retrospect, Gletscher Crème may have had a Sun Protection Factor of about 2 (twice the protection of no sunscreen).

In 1939, Albert Bachem and Bernard Fantus of Chicago investigated sun protection via spectroscopic analysis of various preparations, including calamine, zinc oxide, and titanium oxide. In 1942, John Bird of New York reported absorption of UV radiation in the range of 290-320 nm by PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), and also by salicylates, and suggested their use as sunburn prevention. In 1943, Stephen Rothman and Jack Rubin published further investigation of PABA as a sunscreen.

Florida pharmacist Benjamin Greene (who later founded Coppertone) developed a thick red petrolatum sunscreen in 1944. This veterinary petrolatum “red vet pet” was hot, sticky, stained clothing, and was not particularly effective, but was available and used by some army and navy personnel in World War II. Some veterans recalled it with no affection, and stated that they preferred sunburns. One WWII vet recounted how sailors in the Pacific would "just burn and peel, burn and peel." After the War, Mr. Green mixed red pet vet with cocoa butter and coconut oil to make it more acceptable.

In 1946, Piz Buin brand sunscreen was commercialized and is still available today.

The iconic Coppertone Girl drawing was introduced in 1956, drawn by Joyce Ballantyne, who used her 3 year old daughter, Cheri, as the model.

In 1962, Franz Greiter developed the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating, a measure of sunscreen’s ability to block UV rays. It is still used today, but remains an imperfect measure, since it relies on evenly applied sunscreen at 2 mg/cm2, and only measures UVB protection. It is an in vivo test, that somewhat crudely measures time for skin to burn (produce erythema) of untreated skin versus treated skin. Actual protection from the sun’s UV rays varies depending on the angle of the sun, activities that may wash or rub off the sunscreen, variation of skin type and tanning, and amount of sunscreen absorbed by the skin.

The first sunscreen formulation with both UVA and UVB protection was introduced by Piz Buin in the 1970’s.

In 1978, the Food and Drug Administration first proposed regulations of sunscreen, with recommendations for safety and efficacy, mostly to establish SPF testing and labeling. At that time, the FDA did state that “suntanning is not good for the skin.”

Avobenzone, the first UVA-only sunscreen ingredient, is approved by the FDA in 1988, and is used in sunscreen in the 1990’s and after.

The FDA does not approve any new sunscreen compounds for well over a decade, despite multiple applications having been filed, and congress moves to force the FDA to expedite review with the Sunscreen Innovation Act of 2014.


Thanks to Barbara Reed, MD, who inspired and did initial research for this article.


Shaath, Nadim A. ed. 2005 Sunscreens: Regulations and Commercial Development Third Edition. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor and Francis Group

Roelandts, Rik. 2007 History of Human Photobiology. In Photodermatology edited by Henry W. Lim, 1-13. Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press.

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