Sunscreen plays a vitally important role in keeping your skin from developing an unattractive red hue, blistering, peeling, wrinkling early, and even developing skin cancer. It works by stopping Ultraviolet—or UV for short—rays from reaching your skin. The sun can be generally beneficial, providing warmth, light, and helping the body synthesize vitamin D, but ultraviolet radiation is the one downside, and it’s a big one.
You can find sunscreen that stops UV rays from reaching your skin by absorbing them through a chemical reaction, or sunscreen that blocks the UV rays entirely, causing it to bounce off harmlessly. You can find sunscreen mixed in to your favorite skincare and beauty products, in lotion, facial moisturizer, foundation and more. But how much do you know about where it came from and how it developed over the years?
Vine Vera discovered that the history of sunscreen actually goes back thousands of years. A lot of plant-based oils and extracts contain compounds that help prevent sunburn, and ancient civilizations discovered this and utilized it as far back as 8th century BCE.
Ancient greeks actually coated themselves with olive oil to keep from getting burned, though don’t try this one at home! Olive oil can be great when used as a “face oil” for moisturizing if you don’t break out too easily, but it alone will not protect you from all the sun’s perils, so layer it with actual sunscreen (ideally SPF 30 or higher) if you’re going to apply it.
Ancient Egyptians used various plant extracts to aid in the fight against sun damage, including lupine plants, rice, and jasmine. Interestingly enough, you will find many of these compounds in some of today’s skin care products, so apparently the egyptians were onto something. That said, as with olive oil, we now understand that these compounds by themselves are not enough to prevent the more subtle and long-term damages of UV rays, like wrinkles and increased risk of skin cancer.
Early synthetic sunscreens
In 1928, synthetic sunscreens began to see the light of day, although they were not yet well-known or widely available. They were probably a lot more effective than just coating yourself in oil, but manufacturers weren’t quite as informed on how UV rays worked at that point.
The first widely available commercially-produced sunscreen hit the shelves in 1936 (1932 for Australia), synthesized by the French chemist Eugène Schueller, famous for being the founder of the L’Oreal company. It took time before people really bought in, and the first sunscreen that resembled anything like we see today wasn’t made until several years later, but it was becoming clear that sun damage was an entirely preventable problem, and chemists were working on the solution.
Modern day sunscreens
In 1944, more effective sun-protection products were made for the U.S. Military, to fill a need for protection from sun hazards soldiers in active duty in the tropics faced in World War 2. It worked as a physical sunscreen, but wasn’t very fun to apply; it was sticky and colored red, and probably didn’t feel too nice on the skin.
As scientists and the public at large became more and more aware of the risks of the sun and how preventable they are, commercial products were gradually improved into what we see today, and graded by “SPF,” or “sun protection factor. Today, you can find a great many options in the sun-care aisle to suit your personal needs and keep you out of harm’s way of those pesky UVs.