Sunscreen: An Origin Story

Sunscreen: An Origin Story

Homosapiens have long looked to the sky for answers that may better help us understand existence here on earth. The sun, being the most prominent feature in the sky, has garnered incessant wonderment and worship through the millennia. As the relationship developed, with early homosapiens whose cognitive capacity was steadily increasing at a rapid rate, it would have quickly become clear that the sun had obvious and immediate effects on the skin when directly exposed to its rays. As time passed, pockets of civilization developing in areas with plentiful amounts of sunshine tended to develop darker skin rich with melanocytes or developed natural ways to help bolster their skin against sun-related UV damage. 

The use of natural plant-based sunscreens thus dates back thousands of years to various cultures such as the ancient Greeks who used olive oil, the Egyptians who used rice extracts, or the seafaring societies of South-East Asia who used pastes made from water reeds or barks, such as thanaka, to prevent them from the harsh reflection of the sun by the ocean. For much of their history, sunscreens did not change much in the formulation aside from combinations of different plants, animals, and minerals that became more effective when mixed together at certain ratios. Then, around 1928 during the height of the industrial revolution, synthetic sunscreens began appearing on the market for personal use. By 1936 L’Oreal had brought the first major commercial sunscreen products to market with many others following suit. 

These synthetic sunscreens were mostly petroleum-based products that were thick, jelly-like, and disagreeable for the end-user. Yet, they did serve the purpose as a direct physical barrier to harmful UV rays from the sun. These products were later adapted and rebranded by Coppertone under the Coppertone girl and Bain de Soleil brands in the early ’50s. Later on, in the 70’s, a chemist named Franz Greitier was inspired to develop the first effective “modern” sunscreen and subsequently adapted previous calculations by other chemists to develop the “Sun Protection Factor” otherwise known as SPF, currently the worldwide standard of measuring sunscreen effectiveness. By 1977 sunscreens had become mostly synthetically based, earning them new labels such as “water-resistant” and “long-lasting” due to the chemicals and nano-particles laden in the product, allowing for more effective and end-user friendly experiences with ample protection from the sun. 

In recent memory the world of bronzers, toners, balms, sprays, and the good old regular white pasty sunscreen that never rubs in reign supreme. Sunscreen products almost became part of the sex symbol industry themselves, as a good amount of people through the 1980s-2000s were going for that nice deep bronze generally regarded to be an extremely attractive trait in popular culture.

We can count ourselves lucky for those days have passed, giving way to a world that is beginning to fully embrace more eco and health-conscious products that are just as effective as their inorganic counterparts. 

- Dr. Thomas Macsay


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