History of sunscreen: From trendy tans to SPF

Sunscreen used to be a sticky, thick red substance, and now we've got a plethora of choices.

Sadaf Ahsan 5 minute read May 21, 2021
sunscreen history

Scientists have been studying the impacts of the sun on our skin for a century. Getty

Now that we’re well into an already sweaty May, you may have already pulled out the sunscreen — a cream or powder for the skin that provides protection from the sun’s UV rays. And while it may feel like these products only became a thing a couple of decades ago along with the rising awareness of skin cancer, sunblock has always been around. Surely you remember those cute Coppertone ads.

As early as the 1920s, when the association between exposure to the sun and skin cancer was made. Soon after, the race to create the perfect product led to a very productive decade: In 1932, Australian chemist Milton Blake created the first commercial sunscreen for the company Hamilton; in 1936, future L’Oreal founder Eugene Schueller released his own sunscreen product in France called Ambre Solaire after realizing nothing else worked while he spent time on his boat, natch; in 1938, Swiss student Franz Greiter created what he branded Glacier Cream after he himself experienced sunburn while mountain climbing Mount Piz on the Swiss-Austrian border, as one does.

Greiter, however, is often credited for having invented sunscreen, as his product was the first commercially successful one of its kind in the U.S., and because he coined the term “Sun Protection Factor,” a.k.a. SPF, which is a rating system that measures what fraction of UV rays will reach your skin. Incidentally, when he created Glacier Cream, it only had an SPF rating of 2. Eventually becoming its own company called Piz Buin, that’s, of course, no longer the case.

Kicking things up a notch was Benjamin Green who, in 1944, created an original formula made up of cocoa butter, coconut oil and red veterinary petroleum (“Red Vet Pet”). It was first marketed towards soldiers, who kept them stashed on rafts and in tanks during World War II. His name for the brand? Coppertone — which is, of course, one of the biggest sunscreen brands. After Green shifted its marketing from wartime use to everyday use, it catapulted the product into the mainstream

How did Coppertone accomplish that tricky tone shift? With one very iconic image of a cute little girl on the beach, her shorts being yanked by a little dog only to reveal some very pale cheeks. You might also know her as Little Miss Coppertone. The ads infamously read, “Guard your exposure…but don’t be a paleface!”

Diving into the 1960s, it wasn’t just a little girl and her dog who encouraged people to put on sunscreen before heading out the door. Tanning became all the rage around this time, though not so much actual sun protection, but studies linking sun exposure and skin cancer were rising along with self-tanner sales. (For the record, 90 per cent of skin cancer is linked to sun exposure, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.) Stars like Brigitte Bardot were big fans, and gave the impression that if you could tan like them, then you could afford to lay out on glitzy European beaches like them. Coco Chanel had the same effect early on after she got sunburnt in 1923 on a cruise to Cannes. Stars — they’re just like us!

By the 1970s, Coppertone established its Solar Research Center and became the first to label its products with an SPF ranking. This soon became the standard thanks to the FDA, which required all sunscreens to be labeled with an SPF rating by the end of the decade.

It was during this period that sunscreen products began to advance, with water-resistant sunscreen being invented in 1977. Zinc oxide also became the most popular ingredient for sunscreen formulas, because it was not only effective for protecting the skin against the sun, but in preventing general skin chafing. Another ingredient, avobenzone, was also added to formulas around this time, as it helped protect from UVB and UVA rays.


As a fun fact, if you’ve ever wondered why surfers had a tendency to wear a splash of white across their nose in the sun during the 1980s, we have the company Zinka to thank for that. Their sunscreen was called the very flattering Nosecoat, and was meant to be used on the nose to “eliminate sun glare,” making it very popular with surfers and lifeguards.

Once the 1990s arrived, so did sunscreen sprays, gels, and Baz Luhrmann’s rather bizarre song “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” which was based on an essay/commencement speech draft by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich. Luhrmann gave it the spoken word treatment, with lyrics including, “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97, wear sunscreen, if I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.” The song reached number one on music charts in Ireland and the U.K., because, well, of course.

Today, we’ve come a long way: sunscreen used to be a sticky, thick red substance, and now we’ve got a plethora of choices, most of them light and white. Even many beauty products contain a little bit of sunscreen now.

However, it’s not an entirely perfect market just yet. In 2017, Hawaii banned the sale chemical ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate in an effort to protect coral reefs, as they can affect the ability of coral to reproduce. That led to a dip in the use of those ingredients altogether and, in 2019, the FDA announced that it would be re-evaluating the safety of every sunscreen ingredient moving forward.

Still, sunscreen remains an essential, whether it’s summer or winter and you’ve got incredible skin or not. Sorry to say, the sun does not discriminate.

Sadaf Ahsan is a Toronto-based culture writer, editor and stereotypical middle child. She can be reached here.


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