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How Sunscreen Came To Be

by kelly / November, 18 2020 01:30

Photo of a grandmother putting sunscreen on her grandson

Today we know so much more about how the sun affects our skin and the potential harm it can cause if we don’t practice proper sun protection. We also have access to some many different kinds of sunscreens and SPF products (like ours Smile). But our grandparents and maybe even some of our parents weren’t as lucky as us. Sunscreen as we know it today and the knowledge about the sun didn’t really come to be until the 1980s and 1990s.

Ancient Sunscreen

The Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians actually used natural and plant ingredients such as olive oil, jasmine, and rice bran to protect their skin against the sun.

Back then they realized that the sun led to tanning so they used these ingredients to protect their skin. Side note – don’t rely on these ingredients or homemade sunscreens today. They don’t provide enough protection and they don’t undergo U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing. Here’s a few articles on the issue: "Why Homemade Sunscreen is a No" and "Homemade Sunscreens Don’t Work According to New Study".

So the idea of sun protection was something our ancestors thought about.

Early Days of Sunscreen, the 1930s and 1940s

The first modern sunscreens were developed in the 1930s and 40s. Three chemist are credited as the inventors of sunscreen:

  • In the 1930s, Australian chemist H. A. Milton Blake developed a sunburn prevention cream in his kitchen.
  • 1938 Swiss chemist Franz Greiter, after getting a bad sunburn mountain climbing, developed a sunscreen. He’s also credited with creating the SPF measurement. Ironically his sunscreen only had a SPF level of 2.
  • 1944 American chemist Benjamin Green created a “red vet pet” sunscreen to protect himself and soldiers during World War II. His sunscreen would eventually become the original Coppertone.

Trendy Tanning, the 1960s and 1970s

Most of these early sunscreens were at most an SPF 15 and they were not widely used. Plus in the 60s and 70s tanning was trendy.

These low SPF sunscreens were not marketed to protect you from the sun but rather to help you get a “healthy glow”. And people would spend hours in the sun without being concerned about sun damage.

With a lot of these low SPF sunscreens entering the market, the sunscreen market became so large in 1978 that the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) decided to regulate it.

Link Between Sun and Skin Cancer Established, the 1980s, 1990s and Today

The regulation timed well with research that began to come out in the 80s and 90s that linked sun exposure to skin damage, skin aging, and skin cancer.

This new research brought even more sunscreen innovation to the market. Sunscreens were developed that protected against both UVB and UVA rays. Mineral sunblocks using zinc and titanium entered the market and new forms like sprays and gels were developed.

Then, in 2011 the FDA issued new rules for the commercial sunscreen industry. The rules officially determined that broad spectrum sunscreen products with an SPF of 15 or higher help prevent sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer. In fact, these sunscreens can add and still do add the following language to their label’s Drug Facts panel:

“Spending time in the sun increased your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. To decrease this risk, regularly use a sunscreen with a Broad Spectrum SPF value of 15 or higher and other sun protection measures…”

(Hint: if you don’t see a Drug Facts panel on the label, that’s one indication it’s not a properly made and tested sunscreen. And if you don’t see SPF 15 and broad spectrum, then the FDA says message above does not apply.)

That is why you want to make sure any SPF product you use – sunblock, SPF moisturizer, SPF makeup, etc. – says “broad spectrum” on the label and is at least an SPF 15.

Suncare Smarts

So there you have it, a little history 101 on sunscreen. I think I take for granted how much we know about sun damage and how many sunscreen products we have today. It’s great we have so much information and choices to protect ourselves. It’s this knowledge that’s allowed my husband and me to create our little business.

Thanks for reading and as always, don’t forget to check out our Suncare Smarts and Sunscreen and Sunblock blog series for more great info.

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