• Laura Chaparro, science journalist

    From the battlefield to the beach towel

    20 May

    A young woman sunbathing on a paradisiacal beach and a US soldier posted to the Pacific during the Second World War would appear to have nothing in common, yet they share a vital something: photoprotection.


    The sunscreen industry was launched during the Second World War when the US Army recommended ‘red vet pet’ (red veterinary petrolatum) as a sunscreen for soldiers facing harsh conditions on a day-to-day basis. Troops fighting in Africa or the Philippines used this red paraffin oil, a petroleum by-product, as the first sunscreen in history. The US Air Force issued the product to airmen in case they were shot down in areas of the tropics where shade might be hard to find.

    Sunbathing only became fashionable relatively recently. Up until the 1960s, bathers would rest under a parasol after a refreshing swim.


    Coco Chanel

    However as early as the 1920s, it was the designer Coco Chanel who imposed the fashion of the tan, breaking the association between darker skin and the lower social classes by using models that flaunted golden-brown skin. Twenty years later, Benjamin Green, the inventor of the red paraffin oil used by US soldiers, created a creamy lotion scented with essence of jasmine known as Coppertone. This product helped made sunbathing and tanning even more fashionable all around the world.

    Nonetheless, the story of sunscreens actually began much further back in time. In ancient Egypt, where dark skin was viewed as a mark of the lower classes, the more affluent classes avoided tanning by smearing potions on their skin before exposure to the fierce local sun.

    Papyrus scrolls reveal that the ingredients used in these ointments were the same as those later rediscovered by modern scientists. Where the Egyptians used rice bran in their sun creams, modern products contain gamma-oryzanol - a rice bran extract that absorbs large amounts of ultraviolet (UV) rays. The Egyptians also used jasmine and lupine, now known to protect skin cell DNA, in their ointments.


    The Swiss Alps

    But the history of modern sunscreens began much later. Eugène Schueller, chemist and founder of L’Oréal, is widely viewed as the inventor of the sunscreen in the 1930s. Others, however, attribute the honour to the Austrian Franz Greiter, who developed his Gletscher Crème (Glacier Cream) after suffering serious sunstroke while scaling Piz Buin in the Swiss Alps. Maybe that name rings a bell?

    The universal success of Coppertone had a hidden downside in that it protected skin from sunburn but did not block all UVA and UVB radiation. Therefore, as tanning became more fashionable, the incidence of skin cancer also increased.

    In 1962, Franz Greiter reappeared on the scene, developing the sun protection factor (SPF) system that calculated the capacity of any sunscreen product to block UV rays. Sun protection very soon became big business for many companies around the world.



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