The invention of sunscreen can be traced back to the 1920s. An Australian was looking into ways to prevent sunburns. He experimented with chemicals which had been discovered to absorb UVB rays from the sun. His first batch hit the market in 1932. Produced by Hamilton Laboratories, Hamilton sunscreen is still sold today.

The Importance of Sunscreen by the Numbers

Sunscreen saves lives and that’s a fact. This simple, fairly affordable product can be the literal difference between life and death for all kinds of people. 

  • One Australian study conducted back in the year 2010 showed that, thanks to routine sunscreen use, over 1,700 cases of melanoma and 14,190 squamous cell carcinomas (both kinds of skin cancer) were prevented in a single year.
  • Consider that one in five Americans will get cancer in their lifetime. That risk doubles if you have had more than five sunburns at any time in your entire life. If the sunburn was so bad it blistered then it only takes one to double your risk and for many of us, that was long in the past so there’s nothing we can do about it now. 
  • A whopping 9,500 people are diagnosed every single day and two of them die every hour. 
  • It’s estimated that, in 2022, there were 7,650 deaths attributed to melanoma alone in the US. 
  • As many as 15,000 die from squamous cell carcinoma. 

The numbers are staggering and frightening. That’s why sunscreen is so incredibly important. And if you’re going to be trusting your life to this product, it’s worth knowing a little more about it. So let’s dive into the history of sunscreen and see how we ended up here.

The Invention of Modern Sunscreen

Like many inventions there were a lot of contributions from various sources that got sunscreen to where it is today. One of the earliest modern sources we can look to is Milton Blake. It was back in the 1920s when Blake was working as a chemist in Adelaide, Australia that he began experimenting with ways to protect skin from sunburns.

Blake worked with a product called salol or phenyl salicylate, which had recently been discovered to absorb UVB rays. He cooked up his first batch in a boarding house kitchen. The University of Adelaide confirmed that it had the ability to protect against the sun. Blake began marketing it in 1932. It was produced by his company Hamilton Laboratories and, with some financial backing from friends and family, he had 500 tubes of sunburn cream out for sale.

Hamilton sunscreen still exists as a brand today.

Sunscreen Improvements Through the Years

  • In 1936 a French chemist named Eugene Schueller invented his own version for the company L’Oreal.  L’Oreal is a very large and well known company that makes many products, including sunscreen, even now. 
  • Fast forward a couple of years to 1938. This was when Swiss chemistry student Franz Greiter was out climbing a glacier and got a sunburn. 
  • By 1944, a US airman named Benjamin Green was making use of the oddly named “red vet pet,” which was short for red veterinary petrolatum as a way to protect his skin and that of fellow soldiers right in the midst of World War II. It worked so well it was standard issue in all life rafts so that anyone marooned at sea could use it to protect against the devastating sunburns that you would get on the water.
  • By 1946, Greiter would have his own brand on the market. And Franz Greiter’s version became Piz Buin, another famous international brand still doing well after all these years.
  • After the war, red vet pet was modified. No one liked itt because it was essentially just a remarkably thick layer of petroleum jelly, or Vaseline. It protected your skin by being a physical block to the sun but it was very unpleasant to have on. It did, however, work very well
  • Red Vet Pet was mixed with less unpleasant ingredients like cocoa butter and coconut oil. This became the original recipe for Coppertone sunscreen. This is still one of the biggest names in sunscreen to this very day.

The Invention of SPF

Franz Greiter was also the man behind the concept of sun protection factor or SPF. That first version he made, his glacier cream, had an SPF of just 2. That would be considered essentially useless today, but it was at least a start.

  • Greiter’s SPF rating came years after his initial formula. He devised the PF rating system in 1962 when it became clear that sunscreen was going to be a popular product on the market and there needed to be some kind of standardization across the entire field. Otherwise consumers would have no idea what they were buying.
  • It was 1969 when one of the biggest sunscreen companies, Hawaiian Tropic, entered the market. At the time it was literally operating out of the founder’s garage. Ron Rice had gone on vacation in Hawaii and saw locals using coconut oil on their skin and really enjoyed the smell and the idea of it. He invented his own brand in the most decidedly un-Hawaiian location ever, right in the middle of Kentucky.
  • By the 1970s SPF was becoming commonplace on sunscreen labels. Of course, back then, you started with an SPF of 2 and if you were really serious you could go all the way up to SPF 15. These days an SPF 15 sunscreen is considered insufficient and SPF 30 is considered the bare minimum that you should use for any sun exposure.
  • It was in 1978 when the FDA began to propose regulations for sunscreens. This was based on the knowledge that “suntanning is not good for the skin.” That is a quote from the official FDA document on the subject published in 1978. It was recommended even back then that sunscreen labels let people know that using the product would prevent premature aging of the skin as well as skin cancer. The FDA also wanted to get behind proper SPF labeling so people would understand what a sunscreen did and how.
  • In 1992 another huge company, Banana Boat, got its start and very quickly became a huge player in the industry.

When Were UV Rays Discovered?

night fishing

So we know sunscreen can protect us from the sun. But when did we learn why we’re protecting ourselves from the sun? Our ancestors were just trying to avoid burns and the sun’s effects on their skin, they didn’t actually know what UV radiation was or how that could cause cancer. That all came in 1801.

  • Johann Wilhelm Ritter gets the credit for the discovery of ultraviolet light. He was doing experiments with light and used a prism to break a beam of light apart. That created the spectrum we can see with our eyes and a rainbow of color. 
  • He noticed that, at the end of the spectrum, beyond violet, there was a significant darkening of silver chloride when he exposed it to the range of light. 
  • That led him to conclude there had to be something beyond what he could see, after the visible violet light, which he then named ultraviolet.

Understanding the Danger of UV Rays

Skin cancer had been around for about as long as skin itself. The cause was never clear and our understanding of what cancer is and how it works is not that old, relatively speaking. Learning what causes cancer is even more recent.

  • In the early 1900s, Danish doctor Neils Finsen conducted experiments with UV rays. He was looking at UV rays as a treatment for tuberculosis but he did note at the time that too much exposure could cause tissue damage.
  • In 1956, Australian professor Henry Lancaster was able to establish a link between melanoma and the exposure to sunlight. Think about how recent that is relative to the thousand of years we have been trying to protect ourselves from the sun’s harsh rays. 
  • By 1960, the effects of UV radiation on DNA had been established. So we have over 60 years of history knowing that the sun’s rays can cause cancer at this point.
  • It was not until the 1980s that Australian researchers really began to look at UVA in addition to UVB. After some years of understanding that the sun’s rays cause cancer, and people still getting skin cancer despite using sunscreen, UVA began to be reinvestigated for being more dangerous than scientists first realized. This led to the creation of broad spectrum sunscreen.

The Creation of Broad Spectrum Sunscreen

The two most important words on any label of sunscreen are “broad spectrum.” The sun’s UV rays can be broken down into three parts. There’s UVA rays, UVB rays and UVC rays. UVC rays can’t make it through our atmosphere so we don’t need to worry about them. But UVA and UVB rays do make it down here and they are both dangerous.

Sunscreens are chiefly concerned with UVB rays. These rays have a shorter wavelength and don’t penetrate all that deeply into skin. But they are most commonly associated with various skin cancers. So when you see SPF on a bottle of sunscreen, that number is specifically telling you how protected you will be from UVB rays only.

  • An SPF 30 sunscreen will let you spend 30 times longer in the sun than you could with no sunscreen on. 
  • To put that another way, it will block 97% of all UVB rays that come your way. 
  • An SPF 50 sunscreen will let you spend 50 more times in the sun and block 98% of UVB rays. 

So what about UVA?

  • UVA rays have a longer wavelength than UVB. These are able to penetrate more deeply into your skin and are very much associated with premature skin aging. 
  • Wrinkles, age spots, dry skin and so on can be linked to UVA rays. But they can also cause some kinds of cancer as well. That’s why it’s important to protect yourself against UVA rays too. But remember, SPF only means sun protection factor against UVB rays.

A sunscreen has to say “broad spectrum” on it if it’s going to protect you against UVA rays and UVB rays. It’s not really worth it to get any kind of sunscreen that doesn’t have that level of protection.

We know that UV radiation damages skin cells. 

  • Our body reacts to this damage by flooding the area with blood which causes redness, inflammation and swelling, all those hallmarks of a sunburn.
  • Meanwhile, the DNA in your cells was being damaged by the radiation. That leads to cell death in many cells, which your body then tries to repair. 
  • In some cells the mutations don’t kill the cell off and it begins to repair itself. Because it has mutated it’s not repairing itself correctly and your body is unable to fight it off. 
  • This is how a cancer cell grows and, over time, they can spread and grow more.

Because UV radiation leads to this dangerous cell mutation and destruction, we need sunscreen to stay safe and that’s the long and short of it. But it needs to be effective against both kinds of radiation so that’s why broad spectrum is so important.

What’s in Broad Spectrum Sunscreen?

  • In 1988, a chemical called avobenzone was created that made its way into chemical sunscreens. This was able to protect against UVA rays. 
  • Broad spectrum had actually been invented already by Piz Buin but was not enjoying widespread use. 
  • It would not be until the 1990s and even into the 2000s that the idea of broad spectrum sunscreen would begin to catch on. Most manufacturers only offered UVB protection and, to this day, some only offer that. 
  • Changing up the manufacturing process would likely have cost a lot of money into formulations, ingredients and more and some companies were either very slow to adopt these changes or they didn’t make them at all.
  • To further complicate matters, chemicals like avobenzone are now under heavy scrutiny. Avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and a handful of other sunscreen ingredients are now being phased out. 
  • Though there is not conclusive data to prove that these are harmful to use, there is some concern that they may be. 
  • Avobenzone can be absorbed in the bloodstream but it’s also been linked to serious environmental effects like 
    • coral bleaching
    • fish infertility
    • birth defects in things like mussels and search urchins.

Avobenzone is known to degrade quickly so other chemicals are used to stabilize it and together all of them may end up causing even more damage both to the human body and the environment. There is some preliminary, though not conclusive just yet, evidence that these chemicals may actually lead to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and more.

For that reason, mineral and reef safe sunscreens have been growing in the market over the last few years.

Chemical vs Mineral Sunscreen

There are two types of sunscreens that you’ll find on the market. They are usually called chemical vs mineral sunscreens but organic vs inorganic is another good way to break them down. 

  • Chemical sunscreens are like the Coppertone we mentioned earlier. These work by using compounds that you rub into your skin. 
  • The molecules are absorbed into your flesh and then when UV rays penetrate your skin, the molecules absorb the UV radiation. 
  • A chemical process occurs that changes the UV radiation into infrared radiation which is harmlessly released as heat. It’s quite efficient and does a good job of keeping you safe.

On the other side of things are the mineral or inorganic sunscreens. These make use of compounds like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. In general, these are considered safer for the environment than some chemical sunscreens, which have been shown to damage coral reefs and cause harm to aquatic life.

  • The way a mineral sunscreen works is by creating a physical barrier on your skin. 
  • This is actually the biggest complaint or drawback to this kind of sunscreen. You can see it in your flesh and it makes you look a little like you’ve been painted white.
  • When the UV rays hit something like zinc oxide, two things happen. 
    • One is scattering or reflection of the light. A lot of early research suggested this was the main mechanism by which zinc oxide protected you but that is not actually the case.
    •  A fraction of the UV radiation will be reflected but most is actually absorbed. There is a process called band-gap absorption that allows the zinc to take in the UV radiation. 
    • Then, just as in chemical sunscreens, the radiation is converted to harmless infrared and given off as heat.
  • ‘It was in the 1980s that zinc started to really take off as a sunscreen ingredient. That gave rise to the image of surfers or bathers with a white painted nose as the nose is one of the most likely victims of sunburns in prolonged exposure. 
  • Zinka was the first brand that really leaned into this in the mid-1980s and you couldn’t go to a beach in California without seeing a lifeguard with it on their nose. They also added colors to make it more appealing.

Reef Safe Sunscreen

Looe Key Reef

Some beaches in the world no longer let you participate in any activities in the water unless you have reef safe sunscreen. For instance, you are not allowed on any beach in Hawaii without the proper sunscreen.

Reef safe sunscreens are often mineral sunscreens, operating on the principle that mineral ingredients are more natural and therefore safer. Please be aware that “reef safe” is not really a regulated term, however. Always check your ingredients list. In particular, look for these ingredients –

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Ensulizole
  • Meradimate
  • Padimate O
  • Sulisobenzone

These have all been flagged as potentially damaging to reefs and ocean life. Now, keep in mind, this is still in a state of flux. No one has fully come out to condemn or ban these yet. They’re not illegal, and there’s no clear cut evidence that they can harm you. That said, if you have the option, I’d really recommend not using them just in case. Doing your part to help the environment is never a bad idea.

The worst part about these chemicals and reef safe sunscreens is that many sunscreen brands still use some of these chemicals in products that they label as reef safe. They may avoid the four “worst” offenders, but they substitute the lesser known chemicals instead. And because so little research has been done that can conclusively say those products are bad, they can safely use the label “reef safe” because it’s unregulated and really just means whatever the sunscreen manufacturer wants it to mean.

Your best bet, if you truly want some of the safest products for reefs, is to check our list of reef safe sunscreen recommendations. I tried to ensure the best possible products there based on current science and kept it honest about what I could find out about ingredients.

As always, I have to say some sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. If you have to use a kind that contains these chemicals and there’s nothing else available, then you should do so. Like I said, there’s no actual evidence that this stuff will harm you right now. If anything I would just recommend trying to stay out of the water if you’re using it. But if you have the option, a non-nano mineral sunscreen seems to be a much better choice. The science on some of these chemical additives is very sketchy.

What Does the Science Say?

  • The FDA has flagged oxybenzone, homosalate and octocrylene as needing a much closer look. All of these ingredients can be detected in skin, blood and even breast milk weeks after being used. So the effects on your endocrine system are unknown. 
  • In 2019, the FDA updated their sunscreen regulations and listed only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as being safe and effective.
  • Chemicals like oxybenzone can cause allergic skin reactions and have been linked to lower testosterone levels in boys. 
  • The CDC has found that nearly all Americans have at least some amount of it in their bodies, but those who use sunscreen have a lot more of it present for obvious reasons. 
  • It may be linked to lower birth weights as well.

Are Mineral Sunscreens Safe?

  • Mineral sunscreens are definitely safer than chemical sunscreens for the environment, but they have to be non-nano minerals. 
  • Nano particles can enter your bloodstream and the bloodstream of any other living thing. They can be ingested or inhaled, which makes them a danger so it’s best to stick with non-nano minerals in your sunscreen.
  • It has been suggested that it’s not a good idea to use powdered minerals or spray mineral sunscreens just to be safe. Because you run the risk of inhaling the minerals in those compounds, you could end up with either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in your lungs or your gastrointestinal system and so on. There’s a chance that could be harmful, so your best bet is to minimize the risk of breathing the stuff in.
  • There’s no evidence that either zinc or titanium can be absorbed through your skin, so you don’t need to worry about it entering your bloodstream that way.

Sun Protection in the Ancient World

It would be silly to think that no one in history had ever gotten a sunburn before Milton Blake back in the 1920s. Our ancestors were well aware that the sun was a potential risk factor they had to deal with day in and day out, even if they didn’t know about UV radiation or the risk of cancer.

For many people the way to avoid the sun is as it ever was. You wear protective clothing, including a hat. You stay out of direct sunlight. But ancient peoples did have other methods that were craftier than all that. You might consider them natural sunscreens.

  • In Ancient Egypt, a fair complexion was coveted. This remained true in many societies throughout history, all the way until the early 1900s. Think of it this way – a person toiling in the sun was going to get burned and tanned. A wealthy aristocrat would not. So a way to show that you were wealthy was to be pale and show no signs of sun exposure. 
  • Tanning was considered low class up until Coco Chanel got caught up in the sun in 1923 on the French Riviera and, being a trendsetter and influencer, convinced legions of others that looking golden and tanned was actually very cool.
  • Back in Egypt, our ancient friends wanted to keep their skin as pristine as possible so they used what they had available. Historians have uncovered evidence in ancient papyrus scrolls that they would anoint their bodies with things like 
    • Jasmine
    • Lupine extract
    • Rice bran
  • The Egyptians weren’t grasping at straws, either. 
    • Modern research has shown that rice bran actually absorbs UV light. 
    • The jasmine they used can help repair DNA damaged by sun exposure
    • The lupine aided in lightening the skin.

Beyond the Egyptians, other cultures tried their hand at sun protection using the ingredients they had in abundance also. 

  • Greeks tried to shield themselves with olive oil which likely had worse success than the Egyptian methods and probably led to deeper burns. 
  • Some Native Americans used a type of pine needle that could also help relieve the pain of a sunburn. 
  • In the Philippines and elsewhere they used something called borak, a powder made from rice and other ingredients that are mixed into a paste and applied to the face.

What the modern world has contributed is a more thorough understanding of why we need to use sunscreen, as well as the mechanisms that allow it to work so we can better produce sunscreens to do that job.

The Bottom Line

There’s a lot to be said about sunscreen, sunblock, suntan lotion or whatever you want to call it, as you can see. It stretches back for centuries as even our ancestors understood that the sun could be just as harmful as it was helpful. You need to have a healthy respect for the sun and what it can do. Fortunately we know a lot more than our ancestors did about the how and why of what the sun does, so that can increase our ability to enjoy it while staying safe.

In this day and age there’s no need to get exposed to harmful UV rays. Make sure you have that hat and sunglasses on. If you’re at the beach with your kids, bring a beach canopy or at least an umbrella to provide shade. And make sure you’re using sunscreen properly and reapplying when you need to

As always, stay safe and have fun.