A Burning Desire

A group of nurses soaking up the sun. For much of the 20th century a tan was a mark of health. (National Library of Medicine)

As spring heats up into summer, extra tubes, bottles, and spray cans of sunscreen will cram store shelves, ready to be tossed into beach totes, sports bags, and backpacks. But there was a time not so long ago when baking in the sun was considered an exercise in good health.

It wasn’t always that way. For centuries suntans were deeply unfashionable in the Western world. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (first published in 1813) snobbish, jealous Miss Bingley taunted Elizabeth Bennet for looking “brown and coarse,” the result of summer travel. A proper lady, she implied, would strive to keep her skin pale and untanned. The term tanning is derived from the tannin-rich tree bark used to prepare leather; tanned skin belonged to lowly laborers exposed daily to the blazing sun and to supposedly inferior “races” of people from the hot parts of the globe.

Even when oceanside resorts and sea bathing became popular throughout Europe and North America in the 19th century, people still covered up for modesty and for sun protection. But that began to change in the 1920s when swimming emerged as a mainstream sport, with form-fitting, sleeveless bathing suits for women replacing bulky bathing dresses made from yards of fabric. “Sunbathing” became the new craze of the 1930s and 1940s. Medical professionals praised the sun as “the greatest bottle of medicine in the universe,” supposedly able to cure ailments ranging from acne to tuberculosis. Tanned skin became desirable, a mark of leisure rather than labor and a sign of robust health. The rise of consumer culture, cheaper travel, and increased vacation time all fed a growing demand for products to help achieve a glowing tan while avoiding painful sunburns.

Protecting against the sun’s burning power required understanding how sunlight affected skin. Around 1800, researchers demonstrated that energy exists beyond the range of light visible to the human eye. Later in the 19th century scientists and physicians showed that ultraviolet (UV) radiation—not the sun’s heat—was responsible for “erythema solare,” inflammation and reddening of the skin. Further research identified the specific UV radiation wavelengths that affect the skin’s surface. The next step was finding compounds and mixtures to block, reflect, or absorb this radiation before it reached the skin.

The first commercially successful sunscreen did not appear until 1935. Eugène Schueller, founder of cosmetics firm L’Oréal, was tired of getting sunburned whenever he went sailing, and so he enlisted his chemists to find a UV-filtering agent for a suntan lotion. The result was Ambre Solaire, perfumed with roses and jasmine and packaged in a rippled bottle that wouldn’t slip out of the hand. In 1948 L’Oréal introduced the figure of “Suzy,” a shapely, tanned blonde clad in a bikini (daring for the time), sandals, and a straw hat, carrying a bottle of Ambre Solaire. When reproduced as a life-sized cardboard cutout, “Suzy” was frequently stolen from pharmacies and seaside boutiques.

Other cosmetic and pharmaceutical firms followed suit, their advertisements pairing scientific claims with catchy slogans and images of long-limbed, golden-toned bathing beauties. Skol and Tartan suntan lotions, two best-selling alcohol-based formulas, proudly listed their impressive-sounding ingredients on the front labels of their bottles. In the 1940s Skol contained “alcohol 54% by volume, hexahydroxyethyl tannic acid, aluminum chloride, salol, menthol, tertiary butyl cresol.” The tannic acid, “an exclusive, patented form,” literally tanned the skin (and stained clothing) while providing a mild degree of sun protection; the salol (phenyl salicylate) was also a sunscreening agent. An early 1940s ad for Gaby greaseless suntan lotion, made by a Philadelphia firm, promised easy tanning for blondes, brunettes, and redheads alike, with the tagline “Not a Pain . . . Not a Stain—Just Bask in the Sun and Have All the Fun.”

During World War II soldiers in the Pacific theater used sticky red veterinary petrolatum, originally intended for animals, to shield their skin from the harsh sun. After returning home airman and future pharmacist Benjamin Green cooked up “red vet pet” with cocoa butter and coconut oil on his wife’s stove, creating a moisturizing suntan cream that eventually became Coppertone. “Little Miss Coppertone” first arrived in 1953; commercial artist Joyce Ballantyne Brand redrew the girl in 1959, using her young daughter Cheri as a model because she “worked cheap and was convenient.” The iconic image shows a black cocker spaniel pulling down the swimsuit of a pigtailed toddler to display a pale bottom that contrasts with the tan on the rest of her body. The girl and dog appeared in print advertisements, in window displays, on eye-catching billboards—some motorized to repeat the motion over and over—and even as a 35-foot-tall lighted sign in Miami.

There was a dark side to sun worship, although few realized it at the time. Australian dermatologist Charles Norman Paul published the first study connecting solar radiation to skin cancer in 1918, but his call to avoid “reckless exposure to sunlight” went unheeded for decades. Gradually, as public-health campaigns raised awareness of the sun’s dangers, sunscreens began to displace suntan lotions. By 1972 sunscreens, formerly considered cosmetics, were reclassified as over-the-counter drugs in the United States. The abbreviation SPF (sun protection factor), a numerical measure of sunscreen effectiveness, began appearing on American sunscreen labels in the late 1970s.

For many years sunscreens were designed to shield only against UVB rays, the shorter UV rays responsible for sunburn and skin cancer, as the longer UVA rays were not considered dangerous. Over the last two decades, however, researchers have shown that UVA rays cause long-term skin aging and contribute to skin cancer. Many sunscreens now combine different high-tech ingredients to block both types of rays.

Large numbers of people still value browned skin as a vacation souvenir; some even use tanning booths or beds year-round. Others seek out “sunless” airbrush or spray tans or simply use cosmetics for a tanned appearance. But some are rejecting the sun-kissed look altogether; they wear protective clothing and broad-brimmed hats and carry parasols or umbrellas, just like their 19th-century ancestors, while also benefiting from the nearly invisible shielding of modern sunscreens.

To help consumers make informed choices the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted new labeling guidelines for sunscreens in 2011. For instance, sunscreens that pass the FDA’s tests for UVA protection relative to UVB protection can be labeled “broad spectrum”; preparations can no longer be called “sunblock,” “waterproof,” or “sweat-proof”; and claims of water resistance must be supported by standardized test results. The European Union also regulates sunscreen labeling, restricting sun-protection factor claims to a maximum of 50+ (as research suggests that higher SPFs are not more effective) and introducing a seal for sunscreens that also shield against UVA rays.

Since most people apply too little sunscreen, dermatologists recommend using generous amounts in order to reach the SPF on the label: about two tablespoons (the equivalent of a shot glass) for all exposed skin, with at least a teaspoonful for the face alone. They also prescribe supplementing chemical sunscreens with older forms of solar protection: clothing, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses. As the American Cancer Society puts it, in a slogan adapted from a successful Australian skin-cancer prevention campaign, “Slip! Slop! Slap! and Wrap” (slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, and wrap on sunglasses).

Modern sunscreens include such high-tech ingredients as avobenzone (trade name Parsol 1789, and others), ecamsule (trade name Mexoryl SX), and octocrylene. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, tried-and-true physical sunblocks, are currently available as microfine particles or even smaller nanoparticles, reducing the unappealing “ghosting” effect of white lotions on the skin’s surface. There are debates about the safety of some sunscreen ingredients, though most physicians, scientists, and cancer-prevention organizations agree that the benefits of sunscreen outweigh any potential risks. The perfect sunscreen—waterproof and greaseless, invisible and nonirritating, allowing an attractive tan yet providing near-complete protection from solar radiation—may be unattainable, but with sensible precautions people can still enjoy the sun while remaining safe.

Art historian Jane E. Boyd, Ph.D., studies the history and visual culture of technology, science, and medicine. She works as an independent curator and freelance writer and editor in the Philadelphia area.

CHF wishes to acknowledge charitable support for “Thanks to Chemistry” from BASF, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, DuPont, and ExxonMobil.


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