A History of Sunscreen

At least four different inventors created a type of sunscreen

Sunscreen. RTimages/Getty Images

Protecting skin from the sun's harmful rays has always been a concern. Early civilizations fought this danger by utilizing a variety of plant extracts. For example, ancient Greeks used olive oil, and ancient Egyptians used extracts of rice, jasmine, and lupine plants. Zinc oxide paste has also been popular for skin protection for thousands of years.

Interestingly, these ingredients are still used in skincare today. When it comes to the sunscreen we are familiar with, however, all active ingredients are chemically derived, a feat that could not have been possible thousands of years ago. Perhaps that's why most modern sunscreens were invented by chemists.

So, who is responsible for the invention of sunscreen, and when was sunscreen invented? There are several different inventors who have been credited over time as being the first to develop the protective product.

Who Invented Sunscreen?

In the early 1930s, South Australian chemist H.A. Milton Blake experimented to produce a sunburn cream. Meanwhile, the founder of L'Oreal, chemist Eugene Schueller, developed a sunscreen formula in 1936.

In 1938, an Austrian chemist named Franz Greiter invented one of the first big sunscreen products. Greiter's sunscreen was called "Gletscher Crème" or "Glacier Cream" and had a sun protection factor (SPF) of two. The formula for Glacier Cream was picked up by a company called Piz Buin, which was named after the place Greiter was sunburned and thus inspired to invent sunscreen.

In the United States, one of the first sunscreen products to become popular was invented for the military by Florida airman and pharmacist Benjamin Green in 1944. This came about because of the hazards of sun overexposure to soldiers in the Pacific tropics at the height of World War II. 

Green's patented sunscreen was called "Red Vet Pet," for "red veterinary petrolatum." It was a disagreeable red, sticky substance similar to petroleum jelly. His patent was bought by Coppertone, which later improved and commercialized the substance. They sold it as the "Coppertone Girl" and "Bain de Soleil" brands in the early 1950s.

A Standardized Rating

With sunscreen products becoming widely used, it was important to standardize the strength and effectiveness of each product. That's why Greiter also invented the SPF rating in 1962. An SPF rating is a measure of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that reach the skin. For example, "SPF 15" means that 1/15th of the burning radiation will reach the skin (assuming the sunscreen is applied evenly at a thick dosage of two milligrams per square centimeter).

A user can determine the effectiveness of a sunscreen by multiplying the SPF factor by the length of time it takes for him or her to suffer a burn without sunscreen. For example, if a person develops a sunburn in 10 minutes when not wearing a sunscreen product, that person in the same intensity of sunlight will avoid sunburn for 150 minutes if wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of 15.

Further Sunscreen Development

After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first adopted the SPF calculation in 1978, sunscreen labeling standards have continued to evolve. The FDA issued a comprehensive set of rules in June of 2011 designed to help consumers identify and select suitable sunscreen products that offered protection from sunburn, early skin aging, and skin cancer.

Water-resistant sunscreens were introduced in 1977. More recent development efforts have focused on making sunscreen protection both longer-lasting and broader-spectrum, as well as more appealing to use. In 1980, Coppertone developed the first UVA/UVB sunscreen, which protects skin from both long- and short-wave UV rays.

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Bellis, Mary. "A History of Sunscreen." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/suncreen-history-1992440. Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). A History of Sunscreen. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/suncreen-history-1992440 Bellis, Mary. "A History of Sunscreen." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/suncreen-history-1992440 (accessed July 28, 2021).