Summer is officially here. Unofficially, it’s clearly here for two good weeks now. The sun is high, the temperature is higher. You know the drill, you need to protect yourself from the Sun! Like Baz Lurhman would say: “Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.”
Who Invented Sunscreen?
If you’re looking at the definition of the word sunscreen, here is what you could find:
- A screen to protect against the sun.
- A preparation (such as a lotion) applied to the skin to prevent sunburn (as by chemically absorbing ultraviolet radiation).
Of course, we are here to take a look at the history of the “lotion” you would use to prevent sunburn. A lot of homemade solutions existed, like a zinc oxide paste, but nothing was developed with a scientific approach to the effect of the Sun on human skins. Sunburns were inevitable for most people. In fact, a hundred years ago, it was still the case, but things started to change.
Not that much at first. H. A Milton Blake was a chemist from Australia and the first to try his hands at the development of a sun-blocking cream. It was the late 1920s and he introduced the UV filter “salol” (Phenyl salicylate) at a concentration of 10%. Tests were performed and the results were confirmed, but nothing of note happened after this for a few years.
In 1935, notorious fascist and L’Oréal founder Eugène Schueller developed tanning oil containing a sun filter. It’s called Ambre Solaire (it’s still on the market, but the recipe is not the same). This product was on the shelves in time for the first paid holidays of the French people in 1936. For releasing Ambre Solaire, Schueller can be credited for having invented the sunscreen, but his product was not the last.
Two years later, a Swiss chemistry student named Franz Greiter also explored the idea of sunscreen. He was a mountain climber and skier which led him to suffer from the effect of the Sun.
After a particularly violent case of sunburn while climbing Piz Buinm—a mountain in the Silvretta range of the Alps on the border between Austria and Switzerland—he started in his house multiple experiments to find an effective way to block the effect of the sun. The results were particularly effective for mountaineers. After the war, in 1946, he launched his “Glacier Cream” under the brand Piz Buin (also still sold today).
Even if Greiter can’t be credited with having invented the sunscreen, his work changed the game. In 1962, he introduced the concept of the “sun protection factor” (SPF), a measure (based on the previous work from Friedrich Ellinger and Rudolf Schulze) of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that reach the skin. It changed the industry by introducing a way to measure the effectiveness of sunscreens—he also changed it by introducing the first sunscreens absorbing UVA as well as UVB, and water-resistant products.
Franz Greiter was not the only one to come out of WWII with sunscreen. An airman in the US military, Benjamin Green produced Red Vet Pet (for red veterinary petrolatum) to help protect soldiers against sunburns. Once the war ended, he created a product by mixing red vet pet, cocoa butter, and coconut oil. The result was called Coppertone suntan cream.
Today, Ambre Solaire, Coppertone Sunscreen, and Piz Buin are still helping us to fight the effect of the Sun on our skin. New discoveries, products, and technologies introduced even more effective creams and oils, but the Sun still hits hard, so don’t forget your protection.