The Evolution of Sunscreen

June 24, 2016

The sun is about 4.6 billion years old...
Fossils suggest anatomically modern humans are about 200 000 years old...
And sunscreen? Younger than my Grandpa! (only 75 years young)
Sunscreen is just a baby in our evolutionary story but many people use it everyday in the summer.  We should take the time to learn about its history.

    Let me take you back to the beginning… It all began in the OUTBACK.


    Norman Paul, an Australian dermatologist wrote a book called “the influence of sunlight in the production of skin cancer” linking sun exposure to skin cancer

    He recommended Australian’s use sun protection such as veils, clothing, and zinc oxide. He also warned fair skinned Australian’s of reckless exposure to the sunlight.

    Unfortunately, Normal Paul was widely ignored in his lifetime. WHY?

    people sitting in circle being educated


    Have you ever heard of Coco Chanel? I would like everyone to raise a fist…and shake it.

    We shake our fists at Coco Chanel for being TOO DAMN SEXY and popularizing the tan in 1920.

    WELCOME TO THE DARK AGES. (Popularization of the tan 1920-present)


    Coco Chanel went to the south of France and got a burn… and her fans LOVED IT.

    STOP. Take a minute with me to understand how this trend shapes our relationship with sunscreen for the next 50 years...

    Remember this diagram from the previous post?

    UVA rays UVB rays on the layers of the skin diagram

     REMEMBER: UVB = Burns  & UVA = Aging (Tan)

    During this era (a time when the tan was most desirable) it is important to understand the market is striving to make a product to promote a tan and protect against a burn.

    Therefore sunscreens during this time period were ONLY made to protect you from UVB radiation. 

    Check out this old advertisement from Coppertone...

    old coppertone sunblock add

    Triumphs of the Dark Ages

    1928. Chemical UVB absorbers hit the seen

    1936. L’Oreal releases the first commercial sunscreen.

    1946. Bikini is introduced

    1948. General Electric releases the first sun lamp for home use. “Get that golden summer tan look! GE tan lamp tans like sun”

    1950. Metal reflector released

    1953. Little Miss Coppertone Debuts.

    1978. Tanning Beds released

    An Anthropologists perspective: 

    Traditionally UVB radiation hits the top layer of our skin, as a result we burn and get out of the sun preventing us from further damage deeper into the tissue.

    Burning could be our evolutionary mechanism to reduce our level of UVA exposure.

     Sunscreen originally developed to prolong our sun exposure and reduce our ability to burn. We essentially created a product to remove our evolutionary mechanism telling us to GET OUT OF THE SUN. 



     After 40 years of cooking in the sun, skin cancer is on the rise. The FDA announces that over exposure to sun may lead to early aging and skin cancer. (A notion originally suggested by late Norman Paul)

    Now, there is a market push for a sunscreen product that protects for BOTH UVB and UVA radiation.

    The Era of Cancer and Concerned Parents. (1978-present) 

    1970. Teen cancer rate increasing by 2%/ year (USA)

    1972. The FDA made sunscreen an over the counter drug rather than a cosmetic cream. (Now regulated)

    1974. SPF (sun protecting factor) is accepted for labeling on sunscreen products

    1978. The first SPF 15 lotion is released into the market

    1980. Studies are showing that UVA radiation is also considered dangerous and could increase the risk of skin cancer.  

    1981. Coppertone announces the first UVA chemical absorber – oxybenzone (now the most widely used sunscreen ingredient in over 1500 brands)


    • People are concerned about their risk of skin cancer, and more importantly their children’s risk of skin cancer.
    • As a result the market is focusing on making products for convenience and western lifestyles.
    • There is now a wide variety of sunscreens available in the market. From waterproof, to aerosal, to SPF 100, to sport SPF, to daily moisturizers, to lip chaps, to bug repellents.



    • Sunscreen is a product that has been around for less than 100 years.
    • It originated as a mechanism to prolong sun exposure and reduce sunburns.
    • It evolved into a product to protect against UVA and UVB radiation. But many sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone are dangerous to human health. (Sunscreen continues to evolve to fit the perceived needs of its target market. It is a 400 billion dollar industry.)
    • We are sun worshippers, and although the rest of the world seems to follow the advice of Normal Paul (take shade, wear clothing, use zinc oxide), we follow the footsteps of the beautiful Coco Chanel.

       Stay tuned… next time we will dive into the Science of the ingredients.