Sunscreen is a common product that many people use to protect their skin from the harmful effects of the sun. But how did sunscreen come to be? And what are the different types of sunscreen available today? In this article, we will explore the history of sunscreen, from its origins as a tanning aid to its role in preventing skin cancer.
The early days of sunscreen
The first sunscreen products were not designed to prevent sunburn or skin cancer, but rather to enhance tanning. In the early 20th century, tanning became a fashionable trend, as it was associated with health, wealth, and leisure. People used various substances to increase their exposure to the sun, such as olive oil, cocoa butter, and even basting oils.
Some of the earliest commercial sunscreen products were also marketed as tanning aids, such as Coppertone, which was introduced in 1936. Coppertone contained benzyl salicylate, a chemical that absorbed some ultraviolet (UV) rays and converted them to heat. However, this did not provide adequate protection from sunburn or skin damage.
The discovery of UV filters
The development of more effective sunscreen products was driven by scientific research on the effects of UV radiation on the skin. In the 1930s, a Swiss chemist named Franz Greiter suffered a severe sunburn while climbing a mountain. He decided to create a sunscreen that would protect him from the sun’s rays. He experimented with various compounds and found that PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) was effective in blocking UV rays. He launched his product, called Gletscher Crème (Glacier Cream), in 1946.
PABA was the first chemical UV filter, meaning that it worked by absorbing UV rays and converting them to heat. Other chemical UV filters were later discovered, such as cinnamates, benzophenones, and avobenzone. These filters offered different levels of protection from different wavelengths of UV rays, such as UVA and UVB. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and cause premature aging and wrinkles, while UVB rays cause sunburn and skin cancer.
The rise of physical sunscreens
Another type of sunscreen that emerged in the 1970s was physical sunscreen, also known as mineral sunscreen. Physical sunscreens use inorganic particles, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, to block, scatter, and reflect UV rays. Physical sunscreens do not change chemically when exposed to the sun, unlike chemical sunscreens. They also offer broad-spectrum protection, meaning that they block both UVA and UVB rays.
However, physical sunscreens have some drawbacks, such as leaving a white cast on the skin, being thicker and harder to spread, and potentially clogging pores. To overcome these issues, some physical sunscreens use nanoparticles, which are tiny particles smaller than 100 nanometers. Nanoparticles improve the cosmetic appearance and UV protection of physical sunscreens, as they absorb more radiation than they reflect. However, some people have concerns about the safety and environmental impact of nanoparticles, as they may enter the bloodstream or the ecosystem.
The future of sunscreen
Sunscreen products have evolved significantly over the years, from tanning aids to skin cancer protectors. Today, there are many options for consumers to choose from, depending on their skin type, preference, and lifestyle. Some of the latest innovations in sunscreen include:
- Sunscreen pills: These are oral supplements that claim to boost the skin’s natural defense against UV rays. However, there is no scientific evidence that they work, and they are not approved by the FDA.
- Sunscreen clothing: These are garments that have a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), which measures how much UV radiation they block. Sunscreen clothing can provide effective and convenient protection, especially for people who are sensitive to sunscreen ingredients or who spend a lot of time outdoors.
- Sunscreen sensors: These are wearable devices that monitor the amount of UV exposure and alert the user when to reapply sunscreen or seek shade. Sunscreen sensors can help people avoid overexposure and sunburn, as well as track their sun habits over time.
Sunscreen is an important tool for preventing skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer in the world. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2 million people die from skin cancer each year. Sunscreen can reduce the risk of skin cancer by up to 40%, if used correctly and regularly. However, sunscreen alone is not enough. People should also avoid excessive sun exposure, especially during peak hours, wear protective clothing and hats, and seek shade when possible.