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

Posted by Anne-Katrin Endler on
Frau cremt sich mit Sonnencreme ein

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

Some are always careful to apply the right amount of sunscreen and to reapply it every two hours. Others look for natural alternatives because sunscreen also brings with it various problems. That's why our guest author Anne-Katrin Endler is taking 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, this is not wrong, it is actually a fact. But the reverse doesn't work. The claim: 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 did not live as old as we do today. Life expectancy was still 33 years in 1835. Before people could get cancer, they mostly 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 has only been reached by many people in the last few decades. From the middle of the 19th century, hygienic conditions improved and medicine celebrated great successes. The pathogens of tuberculosis, anthrax and cholera were identified, the drinking water was purified and vaccinations against epidemics were given. Cancer as a major disease only now appeared on the medical stage. Of course, cancer has always existed - even excavations have shown that. However, for a long time it could not be detected at all with the available diagnostic options. And given the age of the people, it was not 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 - noble pallor. This was also a sign of differentiation from the working classes, whose skin was naturally much more exposed to the sun. Even in ancient times, oils such as olive oil, rice bran, jasmine or lupine were said to have been used to protect against the sun. Find out more about the pros and cons of facial oils here . Zinc pastes were also mixed and applied to the skin - a predecessor of today's mineral sun creams, so to speak. The best and most common protection from the sun was clothing, parasols and staying in the shade. The ideal of beauty was accompanied by moral concepts that for a long time prohibited showing too much skin. Dress codes still applied on the beaches of German seaside resorts at the beginning of the 20th century. It would be a few 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 created?

In the 1920s, exercise in the fresh air became popular. And fashion also underwent a change. People showed more skin on the beach. The risk of sunburn increased. The time had come for the first sunscreen. The Bayer subsidiary Drugofa was the first company to bring Delial ointment onto the market in Germany in 1933 (below you can see an old Delial advertising poster).

Advertising poster from Delial: "gives the gift of a classic tan"

This was followed by Ambre Solaire by L'Oreal founder Eugène Schueller (1936) and Piz Buin by Austrian chemistry student Franz Greiter (1948) . The first sun creams were primarily intended to prevent sunburn, but not the increasingly fashionable tan. 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, as legend has it she had forgotten her parasol. But the fact is that the ideal of beauty changed and a “healthy tan” now seemed desirable. She wasn't just considered beautiful. Tanned skin also became a sign of wealth. It showed that you could afford a vacation. Since Germany's economy began to improve after the Second World War, people increasingly looked for their place in the sun in the European South.

Since when does the sun protection factor exist?

The sun protection factors of the first sun creams were poor. The product Piz Buin, for example, had an SPF of 2. The other products probably performed similarly. By the way, the sun protection factor was defined by Franz Greiter in 1962. Since the mid-1970s, it has been listed on more and more sun protection products, but remained low for a long time. According to Stiftung Warentest, a sun protection factor of 4 was still most popular with customers until 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 gradual change towards higher sun protection factors begin.

Is sunscreen harmful?

Today we know more than ever about the dangers of sunlight. In addition to UVB rays, we also know the danger of UVA rays and are starting to look at blue light. We know how to protect ourselves and have more sunscreen choices than ever before. They are also much more affordable than before and have better formulations. In addition to chemical filters, we can also opt for mineral ones. Thanks to the internet, we can sift through the ingredients and choose only the products we want on our skin. We don’t have to be chemists to do this. We can use apps, read product tests such as Stiftung Warentest or, for example, consult the sun protection guide from Xeno . This not only addresses the ingredients, but also gives tips on compatibility with sensitive skin. You can also find countless test reports of sunscreens 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's that about it?

Many people are concerned 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 used. We also have to think about the effects of sunscreen on our environment (keyword: coral death). 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 through 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 plant oils instead of modern sun creams with safe filters and reliable sun protection factors. And no when it comes to mixing your own sunscreen.

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

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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 about 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 it is 350 minutes. The Federal Office for Radiation Protection recommends only using up to 60% of the sun protection time. Then with SPF 7 you would get 42 minutes. It would also be difficult to apply the recommended amount of 2 mg per square centimeter of skin with pure oil. That's about 4 heaped tablespoons for the whole body. Hard 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 been happy to swap their heavy and sticky pastes with us. Perhaps our parents and we would have been spared a few sunburns 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.

Anne Katrin Endler

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

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