The History of Sunscreen

Over-the-counter sunscreens weren’t invented until the twentieth century, but history shows us sun protection has always been a human priority. Common sense tells us sun protection is likely as old as, well, the sun—or at least human life in it.

To sun or not to sun—that is the question

Experts told us to get outside. They said it was good to get healthy doses of vitamin D. They then warned us of the dangers of the sun, saying it can damage our skin and lead to cancer. So do we suntan or slather? Just enjoy the sun in moderation and take precautions, just like they did throughout history.

A long-history of loving the sun

“From the beginning of recorded time, humans have worshipped the sun for its therapeutic properties,” explains Michael F. Holick, Director of the General Clinical Research Center at Boston University Medical Center.(ii)

Sun-worshipping cultures could be found in every corner of the world. Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Druids, Hindus, Buddhists, Aztecs, Incas, and many Native American groups all loved the sun.(iii) We can relate—we still love the sun today!

While ancient civilizations celebrated the sun’s productive powers, not surprisingly, they were keenly aware of the need to protect their skin. Sunburns were just as painful back then as they are today.

Sun protection was no myth

In the literature and art of the ancient Greeks, the sun played an important role. Sunshine, according to the Greeks, was associated with Mother Earth’s well-being. Evidence of this shines through in the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.

According to the myth, the first winter occurred when Hades captured her daughter, Persephone, and brought her to the underworld. Demeter cried about her daughter’s absence, causing rain, snow, and freezing temperatures on earth.

Hades struck a deal with Demeter, promising to return Persephone each year after a designated period. Demeter’s joy about the return of her daughter melted the snow and allowed the flowers to bloom.

To them, the sun was symbolic of joy—funny, we feel the same way! They loved the sun, but appreciated the beauty benefits of being cautious. There are numerous examples in Homer’s Odyssey of protective clothing serving such a purpose, and the poet often described beautiful women as having fair and lustrous skin. Even Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, was introduced as “white-armed Helen.”

Little Red Riding Hood—a trendsetter

Greeks weren’t the only ones to wear sun-shielding garments for vanity’s sake. In medieval tales of King Arthur and the Round Table, fair women were often cloaked in wimples—a headcloth drawn in folds about the neck. Veils also prevented sun damage, and in the case of Little Red Riding Hood, she protected her skin with her iconic red cape.

Shedding the shields—the invention of sunscreen

Not everyone wants to wear a wimple or stay draped in a cape, so the ancient Egyptians came up with a better plan. These early innovators were the first to formulate salves as a means of curbing sun damage—they created the first sunscreen!

Recent translations of papyri scrolls, and the writing on several tomb walls, reveal Ancient Egyptians had advanced knowledge of skincare. Many of their sun-protection ingredients detailed in the scrolls remain valuable today. In fact, we use many of these at Goddess Garden, including:

  • Aloe vera
  • A variety of natural oils derived from flowers, nuts, fruits, and seeds
  • Powder particulates (the ancients used calcite and clay; we use natural titanium dioxide and zinc oxide)(iv)

The 20th century “catches up”

While the ancient Egyptians get credit for creating the first sunscreen, synthetic sunscreens didn’t come along until 1928. These early products were an emulsion of two chemicals: benzyl salicylate and benzyl cinnamate.(v) By the 1940s, companies began using para-amino benzoates after the patent of PABA. Many of these chemicals, however, have since been linked to genetic defects, hormone disruption and other complications.

The advent of the bronzed babe

Ironically, our cultural craze for suntanned skin happened less than a decade after the invention of commercial sunscreen. But why?

Historically, a golden hue was evidence of a working-class lifestyle. By contrast, in the post-Industrial Revolution West, a tan was a sign that one could escape the city for leisure travel. We can thank (or blame) Coco

Chanel, who popularized sun-bronzed skin after falling asleep on a yacht off the coast of France. An enviable lifestyle, for sure, hers was one many wanted to look like they enjoyed.

Doctors and the media then began advocating for a “healthy glow,” and tanning lotions, rather than sunscreen, gained favor.(vi) Some ads, like this one, even taught people how to tan their babies.

The pendulum swings the other way

Sunscreen marketing began slandering the sun, turning things around and leading to a fear of sunlight. This also led people to ignore the preventive role sun exposure plays in health conditions like depression, diabetes, many cancers and more.

What’s more, there’s evidence that the types of sunscreens used in the 1960s—more so than the act of sunbathing itself—predisposed people to wrinkles associated with sun damage.(viii)

Goddess Garden: A bright future in the sun

The history of sunscreen is marked by two extremes that are literally night and day. At Goddess Garden, we want people to enjoy a healthy human-sun relationship by minimizing the risks and reaping the benefits. Egyptians were years ahead in this regard, and we’re following in their footsteps. We use gentle ingredients like minerals and plant-based ingredients whenever possible, so we can just enjoy the sun, the way nature intended.

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(i) Holick, M. F., and Mark Jenkins. The UV Advantage. New York: I, 2003. XI.

(ii) Holick 4.
(iii) Holick 4.
(iv) Shaath, Nadim A. “Sunscreen Evolution.” Sunscreens: Regulations and Commercial Development. Ed. Nadim A. Shaath. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis, 2005. 3-18. 4.
(v) Shaath 4.
(vi) Giacomoni 75.
(vii) Holick 12.
(viii) Holick 14.

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