A Brief and Partly True History of Sunscreen



My personal history of sunscreen starts with Mom rubbing it on so thick I looked like an albino boy running amok at the pool. I later found that Mom didn’t need just sunscreen to embarrass me but that’s another whole column right there. Here are some other moments in sunscreen history, some mine and some that actually happened.

The Memories

I fondly remember the old Coppertone ads of the dog pulling down the little girl’s bikini bottom to show her tan lines. While that would be totally inappropriate in this day and age, it seemed a great ad campaign at the time. It was also in the days of billboards cluttering all our roadways so not everything was better back then. In those days the old goals used to be to get fit and tanned. Now just fit will do as we have learned the value of using sunscreens.

Mothers Again?
Plato once said necessity was the mother of invention or something to that effect. Well, while I’m sure he had a mother who embarrassed him too, I think his point may help explain why the ancient Greeks decided to put olive oil on their skin to protect them from the sun. While the Greeks used olive oil, the Egyptians used rice, jasmine and lupine extracts as well. Ancient civilizations valued light skin and considered it more beautiful than dark tans probably because, since they spent so much time outdoors, lighter skin was harder to maintain. This was before the industrial revolution moved us inside with modern innovations that helped advance our civilization and came to help mankind live more productive lives. I mean things like big screen TVs, PlayStations and Facebook.

It’s Not For Real Until It’s For Sale
An Australian chemist by the name of Milton Blake created a sunburn cream after several experiments in the early 1930s which is said to still be on the market down under to this day. I can’t vouch for that because I haven’t been down under myself since, well, I’ve never been there at all but I saw it on the internet so it must be true. The first major consumer version was started by Eugene Schuller, the founder of the L’Oréal Company who in 1936 refined this invention and produced the first major commercially available concoction.

How High is Too High?
In 1938 a Swiss chemist named Franz Greiter came out with his own product called Glacier Cream, though those silly Swiss have their own spelling for everything. In 1946 using earlier calculations from some other chemists with funny names, Greiter came up with the Sun Protection Factor or SPF numbers that we use today. Greiter’s Glacier Cream is said to have had an estimated SPF of 2. Now, I don’t know about the Swiss but I do have several British friends and when they vacation with us at the beach they use sunscreen with about a SPF 100. If they could find a SPF 5000 they would use it. These are the whitest people I have ever seen and I don’t mean that just because I’ve seen them dance. They lather the stuff on all week when we’re together at the beach, then complain because they don’t have a tan. They may have the last laugh though when we all turn eighty and I look like an avocado, while they look like, well, like young Brits who still can’t dance.

One Burn too Many
Another young man who got one too many sunburns and was fed up was Benjamin Green who was an airman in the tropics during World War II. He later became a pharmacist and came up with a paste he called Red Vet Pet. The name is short for red veterinary petrolatum but Red Pet Vet rolls way easier off the tongue. Unfortunately it didn’t roll too well on your skin as it was sticky and similar to petroleum jelly. He perfected it by adding cocoa butter and coconut oil to make a concoction bought and marketed by Coppertone in the 1950s, bringing us back to that iconic billboard.

They Still Can’t Dance Either
Sunscreen became water resistant in 1977 which seems a no-brainer now but did take a while for some other funny-named chemists to develop. In today’s world you can just go to Panamajack.com and find everything imaginable under the sun for use, that’s right: under the sun. Nowadays it is rare to see someone with a sunburn and if you do, well, obviously either he didn’t have a mother to embarrass him or he’s British, or both.


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