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Skin Care—Then and Now: Sunscreen

Sunscreen Ingredients Chart

Figure courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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By: Ulrike Jacob
Posted: April 30, 2013, from the May 2013 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

Sun protection has come a long way since the Coppertone girl of the 1950s. Although sunburns then were no doubt as painful and unhealthy as they are today, sunscreen was definitely not viewed as a necessity. It was just a lotion every mom had in her beach bag and only used after her kids were already burned.

Well, times have certainly changed. Sun protection is now considered a daily-use item because it is well-known that UV rays cause premature aging, skin damage and even cancer. The stuff is no longer looked at as something you need use only during a day at the pool or the beach. Sunscreen can be found in everything from facial moisturizer to lip balm ... and is no longer relegated to the bottom of the bag.

The evolution of sunscreen

Sunscreens may not have been a common household item decades ago, but the product does have a long history. The first sunscreen is thought to have been developed by chemist Franz Greiter in 1946. As the story goes, Greiter acquired a sunburn while climbing Piz Buin mountain in the Alps, which led him to create a sun-protection product, aptly named Gletscher Crème or Glacier Cream, which is believed to have had a sun protection factor (SPF) of 2. Consequently, Greiter also invented SPF—the standard of measuring sunscreen effectiveness—in 1962. His formula, sold under the brand name Piz Buin, is still on the market today.

Remember the little Coppertone girl with the puppy pulling on her bathing suit? This popular product started out as a gooey red substance called Red Vet Pet. Created by pharmacist Benjamin Green in 1944, Red Vet Pet stood for “red veterinary petroleum” and had a sticky, red petroleum jellylike consistency. Not exactly a poolside staple by today’s standards, but sales of the formula took off when it was purchased by Coppertone, mixed with cocoa butter and coconut oil, and then marketed as Coppertone and Ban de Soleil.

Thank goodness we are not limited to the sticky redness or greasy whiteness of sunscreens from years gone by. Today’s sun protection products are not only super effective at protecting against UV damage, but invisible and comfortable on the skin. Although variety may not be the issue, wild claims of safety and effectiveness have led to recent consumer confusion.

Find out more about the impact of the sun on skin and the best sun protection methods from the lesson on sun in the Physiology of the Skin series, brought to you by Skin Inc. Video Education.