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December 2015

The History of Sunscreen

Author Affiliations
  • 1University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery, Miami, Florida
JAMA Dermatol. 2015;151(12):1316. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.3011

Walking through the aisles of any convenience store, it is easy to be amazed by the countless bottles of sun protection stocking the shelves. There are sunscreens and sun blocks, lotions, gels, and sprays; the list goes on and on. Browsing the scented or water-resistant or vitamin-added formulations makes one wonder where the idea of sun protection began and how it has come this far.

The first record of sun protection began with the Egyptians, who used ingredients such as rice bran, jasmine, and lupine.1 Though they did not understand the harmful effects the sun has on the skin, they did understand the concept of tanning. In a culture where lighter skin was more desirable, the purpose of their sunscreen was solely cosmetic. It has only recently been discovered that rice bran absorbs UV light, jasmine helps repair DNA, and lupine lightens skin.1 Other cultures have tried their luck at sun protection with varying success. The ancient Greeks used olive oil. Some Native American tribes used Tsuga canadensis, a type of pine needle, which was is also effective in soothing sunburns.2 It is surprising that these cultures were able to formulate sunscreens long before the cause of sun damage was understood. In the realm of sun protection, our ancient predecessors proved to be far ahead of their time.

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