The primordial sunscreens
One of the oldest references to sun protection can be found in the recently
translated papyri scrolls and tomb walls of the Ancient Egyptian civilization.
These records revealed the extent of their expertise in the making of potions
with a selection of ingredients known for their sun protection.
Clearly they prized light, fair, untanned skin as a symbol of beauty.
Interestingly, scientific research of some of these ingredients has shown some
surprising sun protection properties, for example:
- Rice bran – contains an extract, gamma oryzanol, that is UV-absorbing.
- Jasmine – extracts repair damaged DNA.
- Lupine – extracts are mild skin lighteners.
Discovery of what causes sunburn
Before the discovery of ultraviolet light in 1801 by the German scientist
Johann Wilhelm Ritter, it was thought that sunburn was caused by “sun heat”
Ritter’s work was based on previous work by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who
demonstrated that strips of paper soaked in a silver chloride solution
darkened more rapidly and with greater intensity when exposed to blue light,
compared to red light.
Because this blue light was below the visible range, Ritter called it “infra-
violet”, what we now know as the ultra-violet spectrum.
Then, in 1820, the Englishman Everard Home conducted research that made
him conclude that the melanin in darker skin absorbed heat to protect the skin
from sunburn. How did he arrive at this conclusion?
Home conducted a series of experiments by exposing his hands to sunlight.
So, he covered one of his hands with a black cloth, leaving the other hand
exposed. He found that although the hand covered with the cloth exhibited a
higher temperature it had no signs of sunburn, unlike the exposed hand.
The discovery that light wavelengths cause sunburn led to the possibility of
using filters to screen the harmful rays.
One of the first attempts was made in 1878 by the Austrian Otto Veiel of Linz
who published a report on the benefits of tannin to protect the skin from
ultraviolet rays. However, this substance had limited practical use as it stained
the skin and clothing.
But, in 1922 Karl Eilham Hausser und Wilhelm Vahle published that sunburn
in human skin is caused by a specific range of ultra-violet wavelength,
between 280 and 315 nanometers. This report let to the development of filters
that blocked this ultra-violet wavelength range, including the first commercially
available sunscreen in the USA in 1928. This substance contained PABA (p-
amino benzoic acid) benzyl salicylate and benzyl cinnamate. Interestingly,
although sunscreen agents were now available they had no traction in the
Between the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the South Australian chemist, Milton
Blake, formulated creams with substances that were used in the treatment of
burns. But, it was the chemist Eugene Schueller, who in 1936 developed a
sunscreen using benzyl salicylate as ultra-violet ray absorber. Not only was
Schueller the creator of the first modern sunscreen, but he was also the
founder of L’Oreal.
Shortly after, in 1938, the Austrian Franz Greiter created the “Gletscher
Crème” (Glacier Cream) with an “SPF” equivalence of 2. However, the Sun
Protection Factor scale was developed by Greiter decades later, in 1962. This
product was the genesis of the company Piz Buin, named after the location
where Greiter was climbing when he got sunburn, and the inspiration for the
product name – Glacier Crème.
By now there was wide interest in value of sunscreens and in the 1940’s in
the USA the pharmacist Benjamin Green created a “red colour jelly”, a
petroleum derived substance with a with some sunscreen protection. This was
supplied to the US Forces in the Pacific during World War II. However, this
substance had limited efficacy and it staining clothing. Undeterred, Green
went on to develop a commercially viable formula and launched Coppertone.
Ironically, Coppertone’s success in encouraging sun exposure and sun
bathing also had negative consequences. Not understood at the time was the
fact that the sun factor protection was insufficient to prevent the damaging
effect of solar radiation and this resulted in an increased rate of skin cancer.
Today, there is a far better understanding of the implications of an SPF rating,
and that regardless of how high the rating is, application of sunscreens every
2 – 3 hours is a must. Besides, the regulatory authorities worldwide are
moving toward unified standards and to make a stand against unreliable
claims. In addition, the public is encouraged to avoid peak sun hours as well
as wearing protective clothing.
Roelandts, Rik. 2007. “History of Human Photobiology.” In
Photodermatology, edited by Henry W. Lim, Herbert Hönigsmann, and
John L.M. Hawk, 1-13. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Kenet, Barney and Patricia Lawler. 1994. Saving Your Skin. New York,
NY: Four Walls Eight Windows.