History of sunscreens

The history of sunscreens is quite fascinating, from very ancient times where there is evidence of people having used plants for sun protection, to the current plethora of sunscreens available today. I have found understanding some of this history is also helpful in deciding where the future is headed in the sunscreen world.

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Ancient history of sunscreens

There is much evidence in the history of sunscreens and sunscreen usage within societies such as the Ancient Egyptians as well as the Chinese, where pale unblemished skins was considered to be the most attractive. Light skin definitely was considered to be more beautiful than a dark skin. This was no doubt connected to the fact that those people who worked outdoors all day long and were therefore deemed to be the working class, obtained a darkened sun-tanned skin. Those that remained predominantly indoors retained a more delicate, refined complexion and thus it became part of a social status and of course, far more desired. Some more recent archeological workings with tomb walls and papyri translations have revealed ingredients used in potions to protect skin from the sun as well as heal any skin already damaged (1).

Path of Invention in the History of Sunscreens

Initially it was thought that the main cause of sunburn was overheating. This was before ultraviolet light was discovered. The following describes the path to different levels of knowledge in the history of sunscreens:

  • 1777: Carl Wilhelm Scheele demonstrated that paper strips dipped in a silver chloride solution became black after exposure to sunlight. Scheele also showed that the paper strips were affected more by blue light than by red light. 1801: Johann Wilhelm Ritter of Germany discovered ultraviolet rays. His experiments were based on the previous work by Scheele. Ritter measured the effects of light below the visible blue, leading to the discovery of the ultraviolet spectrum, which he initially called "infraviolet" (2)
  • 1820: Everard Home, an Englishman, sought to answer why the darker skin of people in hot climates was better protected than the skin of white people, even though black as a colour absorbed more heat. Home exposed his hands to sunlight after covering one hand with a black cloth. The exposed hand burned, although the covered hand registered a higher temperature. He concluded that the melanin in darker skin absorbed heat and protected the skin (3).
  •  1878: Otto Veiel of Linz, Austria, published one of the first reports of a substance being used to protect skin from ultraviolet rays. He discovered that tannin worked as a kind of sunscreen. However, the staining properties of tannin limited the usefulness of his find.
  • 1890's onwards: Scientists started to determine the deeper nature of UV light and its effects on the human skin.
  • 1922: Karl Eilham Hausser and Wilhelm Vahle investigated the ultraviolet spectrum between 280 and 315 nanometers and reported their sunburn effect on the human skin. (2). They realised that the skin could be protected by filtering out those specific wavelengths, which are the UVB rays.
  • 1928: The first commercially available sunscreen was produced in the United States. It combined the sunscreen filters of PABA benzyl salicylate and benzyl cinnamate. Sunscreens started to become freely available, although not widely accepted and used.
  • Early 1930's: Milton Blake, a South Australian chemist, experimented unsuccessfully with a sunburn cream. Around the same time, another chemist, Eugene Schueller, was more successful. Schueller, who went on to start L'Oreal, is often credited as the inventor of the modern sunscreen. Others give that honour to Austria's Franz Greiter, who was inspired to create a product named Gletscher Crme (or Glacier Cream) by a sunburn he received while mountain climbing at Piz Buin.
  • 1940's: a Miami, USA, pharmacist called Benjamin Greene prepared a red jelly-like substance in his home oven. After testing his sticky formula on his own bald head, Greene supplied it to the soldiers in World War II. Known as "red vet pet," the veterinary petroleum-based compound was less effective than today's sunscreens. It also stained fabrics, which made it impractical as a commercial venture. Greene later developed a more consumer-friendly formula and founded Coppertone.
  • 1962: Franz Greiter re-emerged, developing a way to measure a product's ability to block ultraviolet rays, known as the Sun Protection Factor, or SPF. Soon afterward, sun protection became big business, with several companies profiting from providing various levels of protection.

Beyond the History of sunscreens, what's the future?

As manufacturers and scientists continue to research more effective ways to protect the human body against the sun, more focus seems to be on healing as well as protecting. An increasing number of sunscreens are including antioxidants, as an example. Another focus is on the internal sunscreen via such things as a sunscreen pill containing nutritional ingredients. In both of the above examples, a powerful antioxidant receiving great attention is astaxanthin, which is found in sea algae. Astaxanthin is considered the most effective or powerful protection against free radicals found to date in nature. Astaxanthin is an antioxidant that also reduces the pain and swelling associated with sunburn. Astaxanthin pills, when used with other measures, effectively protects against the sun's ultraviolet rays.


Besides such powerful antioxidants, there are many botanical ingredients that are being considered as solar protective agents in their own right. Examples include Black Tea, Green Tea, Ivy, etc. I look forward to seeing these plants in the next advances in sun protection. The less synthetic, toxic chemicals the better!

History of sunscreens References

  1.   Shaath, Nadim A., ed. 2005. Sunscreens: Regulations and Commercial Development. Third Edition. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis Group
  2. Roelandts, Rik. 2007. "History of Human Photobiology." In Photodermatology, edited by Henry W. Lim, Herbert
  3. Norlund, James J. and Jean-Paul Ortonne. 2006. "The Normal Color of Human Skin." In The Pigmentary System, Second Edition, edited by James J. Norlund, Raymond A. Boissy, Vincent J. Hearing, Richard A. King, William S
  4. Kunin, Audrey, M.D. 2005. The DERMAdoctor Skinstruction Manual. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
  5. Oetting, and Jean-Paul Ortonne, 504- 520. Lake Oswego, OR: Blackwell Publishing
  6. Novick, Nelson Lee. 1988. Super Skin. New York, NY: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.
  7. Hnigsmann, and John L.M. Hawk, 1-13. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press

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