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Here’s What You Need To Know About Sunscreen

The History of Sunscreen

Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, people have been rubbing plant extracts on their skin to protect it from the sun’s effects.  These early compounds were intended to prevent the skin from tanning, since many cultures considered lighter skin to be a symbol of wealth and privilege.

The search to create a chemical compound that would protect the skin from the sun’s harmful effects began in 1938, when a Swiss chemistry student named Franz Greiter sustained a sunburn while mountain climbing in the Alps.  A few years later, he released Glacier Cream, the first commercially-available sunscreen. 

At the same time, an American airman and pharmacist named Benjamin Green was developing a product that World War II soldiers could use to protect them from sunburns.  He released Coppertone suntan cream to the market shortly after the war ended.  

UVA vs UVB Rays

In order to understand sunscreen’s protective effects better, it’s helpful to note that two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage the skin: UVA and UVB.  UVA rays are associated with skin aging, and UVB rays are associated with skin burning

Since sunscreen was initially developed to protect the skin from burning, not to protect it from the sun’s aging effects over time, early sunscreens only protected against UVB rays. 

In 1962, Greiter developed the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating factor that is still in use today.  SPF is a measurement of how much longer it takes sunscreen-protected skin to burn from UVB exposure compared to unprotected skin.  For instance, SPF 30 indicates that it takes 30 times longer for skin to burn with sunblock than without sunblock. 

Now that we understand that both UVA and UVB exposure increase the risk of skin cancer, and that UVA exposure causes premature skin aging, most sunscreens manufactured since the 1980’s protect against both forms of UV radiation.  Sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB are labeled “broad spectrum.”

How and When to Use Sunscreen

Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30.  Children, people with fair skin and people who have underlying medical conditions that cause increased sensitivity to sun exposure may need to use a higher SPF. 

Remember to apply sunscreen before going outside, and re-apply it frequently after swimming, sweating or spending an extended time outdoors. Don’t forget the small, sensitive areas like your ears, scalp, feet and nose. 

It’s also important to note that while sunburns are most common during spring and summer months because the sun is at a more direct angle to the earth and people are spending more time outside, dermatologists recommend applying sunscreen year-round, since UV rays can damage and age the skin, and increase the risk of skin cancer, any time of the year – don’t let the clouds trick you!


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