The Sun. The king of all the stars and the source of energy, life and myths. In the spiritual realm, human beings of all beliefs and eras have made all kinds of offerings to this entity so that its light never fades and it drives darkness away. In the aesthetic world, some societies continue to remain out of the sun’s reach, since the tanner their members are, the lower their social class.
With the advent of the 20th century, the tables turned in Western culture. Science increased awareness about the benefits of vitamin D and humanity was seduced by the healthy aspect of the sun’s rays. The element of outer appearance was soon added to the mix. In avant-garde times, pale bodies were no longer considered attractive and the “tan fever” unleashed a trend that still endures today.
From Swimsuit Tan Lines to Sunscreen and Tanning Lotion Brands
Protecting the skin from the sun is a task that dates back to the Egyptians. In the times of the Pharaohs, they often applied plant solutions to prevent and/or soothe burns and heat stroke with balms made from clay, jasmine, rice or lupins.
In 1801, humans and the Sun got to know each other somewhat better when German physicist Johann Ritter discovered the existence of ultraviolet rays and their properties. Humans were better able to understand why we get sunburned and this scientific legacy allowed chemists of the following century to refine the formulas of their topical solutions, thus giving way to two commercial trends: tanning lotions on the one hand, and sunscreens on the other. The purposes of the former were more aesthetic than preventive. Perhaps for this reason it is no wonder that it emerged in Paris, the cradle of fashion.
Legend has it that Coco Chanel brought tanned skin into fashion back in 1925 after a few days of rest under the full sun, and voilà! Swimsuit tan lines became a symbol of wealth and holidays. Less mythical records date the first tanning lotion back to 1927, when it was created by French perfumer and designer Jean Patou. The product called Huile de Chaldée increased melanin synthesis, however, it did not offer any protection.
After several years of testing and thanks to the endorsement of the University of Adelaide, Australian chemist Milton Blake marketed the first sunscreen with UV protection in 1932. The product was the cornerstone of the Hamilton laboratories (created by Blake himself along with other professional colleagues), a national symbol in our antipodes.
Europe wasted no time in stealing the media spotlight from Oceania. In 1935, France once again became the protagonist thanks to Eugène Schueller, chemist and founder of L’Oreal. His Ambré Solaire incorporated the Old World’s first protective filter. In 1936, he took the market by storm thanks to an unprecedented radio advertising campaign at the time… because “he was worth it”. That same year, this time from Germany, the company Beiersdorf AG (a pioneer in skin care thanks to patents such as its Eucerit patent from 1902 – DE 167849) strengthened the formula of its NIVEA cream to provide it with sun protection. To promote this product, the already classic blue-white combination debuted its first colour ad…
The Protection Factor
Two very different reasons led to two chemists taking all the honours in the field after World War II. The first chemist was American Benjamin Green whose inspiration comes from the damages the sun caused on the bodies of soldiers stationed in the Pacific.
During his time as an aviator, he started using a petroleum jelly called Red Vet Pet (RVP) to protect himself. Once the war was over, Green mixed the substance with cocoa butter, coconut oil and jasmine fragrance. The result: a consistent cream with a pleasant scent that the Coppertone brand turned into the leading suntan lotion in the United States. The product’s success was also aided by its logo featuring a girl whose bikini was being bitten by a puppy, leaving her whitish bum in view. Over the years, Coppertone would make its brand image less revealing. In 2019, the company was acquired by Beiersdorf AG.
We will now move to Austria to meet the second protagonist, Franz Geiter, who besides being a chemist was a great fan of mountain climbing. Tired of constantly getting sunburned while climbing the Piz Buin (a mountain peak that would later lend its name to the well-known brand), he decided to develop a sunscreen. His experiments began in 1938, but it wasn’t until 1946 that his first great result was marketed: Glacier Cream.
Geiter’s contribution did not stop with his first product. With the first cases of skin cancer, researchers had a new challenge and the Austrian did not shy away from it. He divulged the concept of SPF (Sun Protection Factor) in 1962, which was truly revolutionary not only in the industry, but also in science (especially in the branches of photochemistry and photobiology). The measurement system, which eventually became a standard, was based on the studies by Rudolf Schulze from 1956. This German physicist had calculated the protection factor by dividing the exposure time required for the induction of erythema on sunscreen-protected skin by the time required for the production of erythema on the area of unprotected skin, using radiation in different ranges of the spectrum.
Today, sunscreens (and a large number of cosmetic products) continue to be improved for maximum effectiveness by means of UVA and UVB ray blocking filters and for greater water resistance.
Whether at sea or in the mountain, make sure you enjoy the sun without leaving your skin behind.