The History of Sunscreen

The History of Sunscreen


By Sonya Adler and Emma Danzo

The sun powers life as we know it. As a species, we rely on  the sun for the sustenance  that it provides. Just as “Fire can warm or consume, water can quench or drown, wind can caress or cut,” the sun can be a friend and a foe. This is why humans have instinctively learned  to protect themselves from it throughout history. How exactly did that stick of sunscreen in your beach bag come to be, and why has sunscreen changed so much over the ages?

Believe it or not, some of the sunscreens we use today originate from ancient methods of sun protection. But, most companies have chosen to stray from the tried-and-true indigenous knowledge of mineral and plant-based sunscreen, instead opting for synthetic chemicals. Whereas mineral and plant-based sunscreens promote human and environmental health, chemical sunscreens can be damaging to us and our ecosystems. Because of this, it is important to examine techniques that have been used for thousands of years in order to better understand how to best protect ourselves from the sun. 

Let’s take a look at the story of sunscreen across different areas of the world, and see the integral role sunscreen has played in advancing our society through both its social and functional characteristics. 


The story of sunscreen begins all the way back in 4000 BC. Like many inventions that have benefited us today, the idea of skin protection from the sun stemmed from the Ancient Egyptians. The Ancient Egyptians admired light skin, so they invented a way to preserve their fair skin tone. The Egyptians used rice bran extract, jasmine, and lupine extract in formulas to protect their skin from the sun’s harsh rays, repair skin damage and lighten their skin. Shortly after the Egyptians started protecting themselves from the sun, other civilizations caught on. Between 800-500 BC, the Greeks started using a mixture of olive oil and sand to protect themselves under the harsh sun during the Olympic games. Additionally, an ancient Indian medical practice, ‘Chakara Samhita’, discovered and used pushpanjan (zinc oxide), which is the active ingredient used in mineral sunscreen today. 


In Myanmar, people have been using Thanatka, a product ground down from tree bark, for centuries. Apart from its uses in treating skin diseases and cosmetic skin lightening, Thanatka can be used as a protectant from the sun. It has the ability to produce zinc oxide particles, which  protect human skin against UV rays. People in this region who consistently work under the sun use this product to protect themselves in both urban and rural areas. Additionally, Thanatka has many antioxidants containing properties that can decrease inflammation, provide anti-aging benefits, and decrease cancerous activity. 


Throughout history, the pursuit of sun protection has actually given way to the development of civilizations. One substance in particular, Ochre, a pigment from rocks, is a primary example of this phenomenon. The first uses of Ochre have been shown by archaeologists to have been some of the earliest displays of human cognition. Early civilizations used ochre as sunscreen, adhesive, insect repellent, and leather preservative, developing the human mind through their innate inquisitiveness of and creative experimentation with the natural world.

Used as sunscreen, ochre allowed for early humans to travel farther distances, forage, and hunt for longer periods of time. As the use of ochre became more widespread, the very first human civilizations were able to migrate past Africa. Ochre is still used today by the Hamar people of Ethiopia and the Himba women of northwestern Namibia who use this super substance to clean their hair and protect it from the sun. Ochre can still be bought in shops and regions practicing traditional medicine, where sunscreen is known as ibomvu, the Zulu word for red. The effectiveness of ochre holds true today, as modern science has shown the effectiveness of ochre as a protectant against ultraviolet radiation. Thus, the very first human civilizations in the African Middle Stone Age were highly innovative in their pursuit of sun protection, and in turn this pursuit was an impetus for the development of humans and societies as we know them today. 


On the other side of the world, Native Americans in Wyoming found the medicinal qualities of the Aspen tree. The bark of the tree has a chalky coating that can act as an SPF. The SPF of this chalk substance is quite low (SPF 5), but it can be collected for later use and continuously reapplied. In other areas of America, Indigenous people also used sunflower oil and Tsuga Canadensis (commonly known as pine needles).

Additionally, polar communities also needed protection from the harsh sun reflecting off glaciers, so people in Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Greenland made goggles from leather, bone, ivory, and wood to block the damaging UV rays from their eyes. Civilizations around the world slowly but surely began catching on to the trend to protect themselves from the sun either for practical or aesthetic purposes. 


A common theme you may be noticing here is that ancient regions developed distinct ways to protect themselves from the sun using what they had in their surroundings. In South Africa alone, there are over 250 plants for skin protection, lightening, and disease treatment. In other regions, some common herbs that have been used as sunscreens throughout the ages are green or black tea, Aloe vera, walnut, tomato, myrobalan, carrot, lemon, pomegranate, apple, turmeric, and many other antioxidant-rich substances. Let’s now take a look at the more modernized sunscreen that was later developed in Western areas.


Fast forward to Germany, 1801. Johan Wilhelm Ritter discovered what indigenous people around the world had been aware of for centuries: UV radiation. Soon after, a study was published proving that UV radiation can cause skin erythema and burns (NCBI). Dr. Hammer, another German doctor, recommended the use of chemical sunscreen to protect humans from the harmful UV radiation that was causing “erythema solare”, or sunburn. Dr. Hammer made an ointment to combat sunburn, calling it the first human sunscreen. After this first leap into the beginning of sunscreen research, other physicians and chemists began to reiterate Hammer’s findings, discovering a link between skin cancer and UV radiation. The field of sunscreen research was born.

1936, USA

In 1936, Eugene Schueller, the founder of L’Oreal, introduced the first commercial sunscreen products to the market. Later on, in the middle of WWII, pharmacist Benjamin Green introduced a solution for his fellow soldier’s sunburn: Red Vet Pet (red veterinary petroleum), which was red, sticky, and disliked. Green went on to remake this prototype into a well-liked sunscreen with cocoa butter and coconut oil, calling it Coppertone Suntan Cream. Coppertone’s timeless cultural iconography turned sunscreen into an iconic social symbol. 


It wasn’t until the 70’s that Swiss Chemist Franz Greiter pioneered the development of “modern” sunscreen, sun protection factor, or SPF, and UVA versus UVB filters. From then on, most sunscreens were still chemical, but now had qualities such as “water resistance” or “long lasting.” Most companies achieved these standards not through the centuries’ old indigenous knowledge of plant-based effectiveness, but instead through the conglomeration of nano-particles and synthetic chemicals. 

As skin cancer research advanced alongside Greiter’s discoveries, so did the convenience of sunscreen, and together the findings and product innovation influenced public adoption of sunscreen on a wide scale. This increase in demand led companies to create more chemical-heavy, thinner sunscreen that would absorb into the skin more easily. The result was chemical sunscreens that are full of nanoparticles that break down in marine environments and cause harm to the ecosystems in these habitats. As zinc was found to be both more effective and safe, the demand for sunscreen to rub in provided a platform for ‘clear’ zinc to be invented in 2003. 


In 2008, Danovaro and colleagues published the first study showing the potential of sunscreen to cause coral bleaching in areas with high levels of human recreational use. In 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common yet toxic ingredients in chemical sunscreen. Though these two toxins were banned, there are still many other toxic nanoparticles in common sunscreen. The effects of these silent toxins were revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic, as tourism was shut down in Hawaii, and Hawaiian coral reefs experienced a widespread regrowth. 

A recent study has shown chemical sunscreens to cause plasma concentrations exceeding healthy levels established by the FDA. High plasma levels can result in both bone and skin cancer. The active ingredients in this study were avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule . It is counterintuitive that these products are revealed to be cancer causing, because they were originally intended to protect from cancer caused by radiation! 

Today, we understand that these “-zone” ingredients are harmful to both the human body and the ecosystems around us, so many sunscreen companies have switched to using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide instead; hence, Avasol was born. The problem today is that although we know that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are generally recognized as safe and effective to the human body and the marine ecosystem, we are still not sure of the full effect that zinc has on marine life. The nanoparticles in the “-zone” ingredients that pose a threat may also become problematic in zinc products. Developed in 2003, and still highly experimented with today, ‘clear zinc’ has become popular because it is able to rub in without any residue on the skin. So what’s the catch? Zinc is intended to form a physical barrier, yet ‘clear zinc’ is somehow able to cheat the system by actually agglomerating, or sticking together, nanoparticles. Thus, although it may be more aesthetically pleasing, clear zinc may actually contribute to the issue of nanoparticles. Past research has proven nanoparticles to be damaging to marine environments and the human body, but science has yet to discover if the agglomerated nanoparticles in clear zinc actually break down into the very harmful nanoparticles zinc aims to avoid in the first place. 


The question of clear zinc is a slippery slope, which is why Avasol was created to be a tinted, non-nano, mineral sunscreen. We consider it to be at the pinnacle of safe-sunscreen innovation in our society today, and we continue to further research in the field. It’s no wonder that the story of sunscreen circles back to its very roots in harnessing the power of mineral and plant-based substances. Now it's time to tap into this ancient wisdom and educate others about the harmful effects of chemical and nano sunscreen! If you’ve read to here, it’s your turn to be an #EcoWarrior and join our Avasol Tribe in protecting ourselves and the planet.

1 comment

  • Erin Wilson

    Excellent, very informative article. I would love to read more about your products.

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