More people than ever are aware of the importance of wearing sunscreen. But long before sunscreen was invented, humans have been ingeniously protecting their skin from sun damage using natural methods. Understanding these ancient sun protection techniques offers a window into our ancestors' intimate relationship with the sun. As long as humans have walked the earth, we have depended on the sun's light and warmth. Yet we have also suffered the harmful effects of too much sunlight.
Ancient Sun Protection Methods
Even ancient people seemed to understand the need to protect their skin intuitively. Their techniques give us a glimpse of ingenious solutions born from necessity. These clever and sometimes extreme methods reveal our ancestors' relationship with the sun. Discover some our ancestors sun protection routines below!
Ancient Egyptians used extracts from rice, jasmine, and lupine plants to protect and lighten their skin from the sun. Though these extracts offered limited UV protection, they demonstrated the Egyptians' desire to avoid tanning. The plant extracts also provided hydrating and anti-inflammatory benefits for the skin, many of which we still use today.
Papua New Guineans
Tribes in Papua New Guinea applied thick coatings of clay and charcoal as body paint to protect their skin from the intense equatorial sun. This crude "sunscreen" helped shield against UV rays and acted as a natural insect repellent, warding off mosquitos. The body paint was worn as part of ceremonial body painting traditions among tribes.
Indigenous Australians living in the desert protected their skin from the blazing Australian sun using natural resources at hand. They applied mud and leaf masks, rubbed tea tree oil on sunburns, and constructed shade structures from spinifex leaves and eucalyptus branches. Tea tree oil's antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties helped soothe sunburned skin.
Himba Tribe in Namibia
The Himba people of northern Namibia create a skin paste called "otjize," made by mixing butterfat from cattle with ochre clay. Women and children apply the red-orange paste to their skin and hair daily as a form of body art. The mixture also functions as a physical barrier, providing some protection from the harsh Namibian sun.
For over 2000 years, Burmese women have applied thanaka, a creamy paste made from grinding the bark of the thanaka tree, to their skin. Thanaka contains vitamin E, which moisturizes the skin and provides anti-inflammatory benefits. The paste is applied in decorative designs on the face and shoulders as a form of cosmetic beautification. Its minerals and nutrients have also offered some protection from the sun, though minimal.
The ancient Greeks regularly applied olive oil to both moisturize and protect their skin from the sun. While olive oil only has a sun protection factor of around 7-8, making it ineffective by today's standards, it offered Greeks some degree of UV protection and helped soothe sunburns. Olive oil consumption was also thought to help slow the spread of melanoma skin cancer.
History of Sunscreen
For millennia, people used natural substances like olive oil, clay, ochre, and plant extracts as makeshift sun protection. While these provided limited UV protection, their use demonstrated humans’ growing understanding of the need to shield skin from damaging sun rays.
The first synthesized sunscreens were developed in the early 20th century. In 1920 chemist Franz Greiter invented what is considered the first commercial sunscreen made from para-aminobenzoic acid or PABA. However, these early sunscreens protected primarily against sunburn, not damage at the molecular level.
In the 1930s, chemists determined that ultraviolet rays fall into two categories – UVA and UVB – that impact skin differently. UVB rays cause sunburn, while UVA rays penetrate more deeply and contribute to photoaging and skin cancer. Early sunscreens were protecting mainly against “burning” UVB rays.
Modern Sunscreen Advancements
Major advances were made in the 1970s and 1980s with the development of sunscreens that included organic chemicals and physical blockers. They protected against both UVA and UVB rays. New active ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, and ecamsule were patented, broadening the UV spectrum that sunscreens could block. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide were also introduced as physical blockers that could reflect and scatter both UVA and UVB rays.
In the 1990s and 2000s, sunscreen technology continued to improve. Stable formulations with higher SPF ratings were created through new combinations of chemical and physical blockers. Manufacturers began listing UVA protection values on product labels to give consumers more information. Today, sunscreens must meet stringent standards and regulations to be approved by the FDA in the United States.
While the synthesis of sunscreens within the past century has revolutionized skin protection, humans have intuitively known for millennia that shielding our skin from the sun’s intense rays is paramount for health and well-being.