Who Invented Sunscreen?

At least four different inventors created a type of sunscreen.

Sunscreen
Sunscreen. RTimages/Getty Images

Early civilizations used a variety of plant extracts to help protect the skin from the sun's harmful rays. For example, ancient Greeks used olive oil for this purpose 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 skin care today. But when it comes to the invention of actual sunscreen, several different inventors have been credited as being the first to invent such a product.

The Sunscreen Boom

One of the first sunscreens was invented by chemist Franz Greiter in 1938. Greiter's sunscreen was called Gletscher Crème or Glacier Cream and had a sun protection factor (SPF) of 2. The formula for Glacier Cream was picked up by a company called Piz Buin, named after the place Greiter was sunburned and thus inspired to invent sunscreen.

One of the first popular sunscreen products was invented for the United States 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 and sold it as "Coppertone Girl" and "Bain de Soleil" brands in the early 1950s.

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.

A Standardized Rating

Greiter also invented the SPF rating in 1962. The 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 2 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.

So for example, if a person develops a sunburn in 10 minutes when not wearing a sunscreen, the same person in the same intensity of sunlight will avoid sunburn for 150 minutes if wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of 15. Sunscreens with higher SPF do not last or remain effective on the skin any longer than lower SPF and must be continually reapplied as directed.

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.