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History of sunscreen: why our ancestors didn't need it, but we do

Posted by Anne-Katrin Endler on
Werbeplakat con Delial: "schnekt klassische Bräune"

The topic of sun protection divides opinions and is surrounded by myths.

Some are always careful to apply the right amount of sunscreen and to change it every two hours. Others are looking for natural alternatives because sunscreen also comes with various problems. That's why our guest author Anne-Katrin Endler takes a look at the history of sunscreen this time.

One of the myths about sunscreen is that our ancestors didn't get skin cancer even without sunscreen. First of all, that's not wrong, it's actually a fact. But the reverse does not work. The assertion that because our ancestors didn't get skin cancer without sunscreen, we don't need it today is wrong.

Before the invention of sunscreen

But first, why didn't people get skin cancer in the past? This is simply because they didn't get as old as we do today. Life expectancy was still 33 years in 1835. Before people could get cancer, they usually died from other diseases. According to the German Cancer Society, skin cancer now occurs on average between the ages of 75 and 79. An age that many people have only reached in the last few decades. From the middle of the 19th century, hygienic conditions improved and medicine celebrated great successes. The causative agents of tuberculosis, anthrax and cholera were identified, the drinking water was purified and vaccinated against epidemics. Cancer as the major disease has only just entered the medical arena. Of course, cancer has always existed - even excavations have shown that. However, for a long time it could not be recognized with the available diagnostic options. And given the age of the people, it wasn't a mass phenomenon.

So we now know that cancer was not the greatest threat to our ancestors. They still protected themselves from the sun – at least those who could afford it. This was mainly due to the prevailing ideal of beauty - the noble pallor. This was also a sign of differentiation from the working classes, whose skin was of course much more exposed to the sun. Even in ancient times, oils such as olive oil, rice bran, jasmine or lupine are said to have been used to protect against the sun. You can learn more about the pros and cons of facial oils here . And zinc pastes were also mixed and applied to the skin - a predecessor of today's mineral sunscreens, so to speak. However, the best and most common form of protection from the sun was clothing, umbrellas and staying in the shade. The ideal of beauty went hand in hand with moral concepts, which for a long time prohibited showing too much skin. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were still dress codes on the beaches of German seaside resorts. It would be several decades before the bikini was invented.

Swimwear that covers almost the entire body.
Swimwear before the invention of the bikini

When was the first sunscreen?

In the 1920s, outdoor exercise became popular. And fashion changed too. More skin was shown on the beach. The risk of sunburn increased. The time for the first sunscreen was ripe. The Bayer subsidiary Drugofa was the first company to market the Delial ointment in Germany in 1933 (above you can see an old Delial advertising poster). It was followed by Ambre Solaire by L'Oreal founder Eugène Schueller (1936) and Piz Buin by Austrian chemistry student Franz Greiter (1948) . The first sunscreens were primarily intended to prevent sunburn, but please don't try tanning, which is becoming increasingly fashionable. Incidentally, fashion icon Coco Chanel is said to be responsible for the new fashion, who returned tanned from a boat trip on the Mediterranean - not entirely voluntarily, according to legend, she had forgotten her parasol. The fact is, however, that the ideal of beauty has changed and a “healthy tan” now seems desirable. She wasn't just considered beautiful. Tanned skin also became a sign of wealth. It showed that you could afford a holiday. Since the economic upswing in Germany after the Second World War, people have increasingly sought their place in the sun in southern Europe.

How long has the sun protection factor been around?

The sun protection factors of the first sun creams were measly. The Piz Buin product, for example, had an SPF of 2. The other products may have performed similarly. Incidentally, the sun protection factor was defined by Franz Greiter in 1962. Since the mid-1970s, it has been featured on more and more sunscreen products, but has remained in the low range for a long time. According to Stiftung Warentest, a sun protection factor of 4 was the most popular among customers well into the 1980s. SPF 15 was considered a sunblock. Only with the discovery of the ozone hole in the mid-1980s and the increasing cases of skin cancer did a change towards higher sun protection factors slowly begin.

Is sunscreen harmful?

Today we know more than ever about the dangers of the sun's rays. In addition to UVB rays, we are also aware of the danger from UVA rays and are beginning to concern ourselves with blue light. We know how to protect ourselves and we have more sunscreen choices than ever before. They are also much more affordable than they used to be and have better formulations. In addition to chemical filters, we can also opt for mineral ones. Thanks to the internet, we can screen the ingredients and only select the products that we want on our skin. We don't have to be chemists for that. We can use apps, read product tests such as Stiftung Warentest or, for example, consult Xeno's sun protection guide . This not only addresses the ingredients, but also gives tips on compatibility with sensitive skin. You can also find countless sunscreen reviews on social media. It has never been so transparent.

Get our free sun protection guide for sensitive skin here

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At the same time, many people are more concerned than ever that sunscreen could harm us. What is it?

Many people worry about their vitamin D supply and have concerns about the ingredients. That is understandable. We need vitamin D for our health and unfortunately some questionable UV filters and ingredients are still being used. We also have to think about the effects of sunscreen on our environment (keyword coral die-off). But do we have to go back to the roots and resort to the sun protection strategies of our ancestors? Yes, when it comes to protecting yourself with clothing, using sun hats and umbrellas, and seeking shade. Yes, when it comes to rethinking the ideal of beauty and leaving the "healthy tan" behind. No, when it comes to using pure vegetable oils instead of modern sunscreens with safe filters and reliable sun protection factors. And no, when it comes to mixing sunscreen yourself.

Also remember to remove the sunscreen in the evening with a mild facial cleanser.

Hand of a woman with cleansing foam

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Vegetable oils such as coconut or olive oil have a sun protection factor of around 7. Other oils have even less. Dermatologists recommend at least an SPF of 30. As a reminder: the sun protection factor indicates how much longer you can stay in the sun with sun protection. If a person has a self-protection time of around ten minutes, they can stay in the sun with SPF 7 for 70 minutes before sunburn occurs. That won't get you very far in the summer. With SPF 30 it is 210 minutes and with SPF 50 350 minutes. The Federal Office for Radiation Protection recommends using the sun protection time only up to 60%. Then you would get 42 minutes with SPF 7. It would also be difficult with pure oil to apply the recommended amount of 2 mg per square centimeter of skin. That's about 4 heaped tablespoons for the whole body. Difficult to imagine with pure oil.


A look at the history of sunscreen shows that people have always used all the means available at the time. Our grandparents would certainly have gladly traded their heavy and sticky pastes with us. Perhaps our parents and we would have been spared a sunburn or two as children if we had applied sunscreen regularly earlier. So we are happy about the variety and look for the sunscreen that we like to apply a lot. Because the best sun protection is the one we like to use.

about the author

Anne-Katrin Endler studied cultural studies with a focus on cultural and media history. For many years she has worked in the PR department of a museum, where she combines her penchant for writing with her interest in history. She lives out her passion for skin care and healthy food on her Instagram channel @flowersformyskin . She wears sunscreen all year round. .

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