10 Pre-Sunscreen Methods for Dealing with the Sun

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George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images / George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

As the weather heats up, we’re all slathering and spraying on more sunscreen. While applying that SPF 30 (or higher) at regular intervals may seem like a chore, a quick look at the ways we protected ourselves from UV rays before the advent of modern sunscreen will make you thankful that all you need to stay safe is a friend to do your back.

1. Ancient Egyptians used jasmine and rice as sunscreen.

Ancient Egyptians prioritized light and fair skin as a symbol of beauty, so they needed protection; the oldest reference to skin care and sun protection can be found on their papyrus scrolls and tomb walls. Interestingly, some of the compounds they used really work. Rice bran actually contains UV-absorbing gamma oryzanol, and jasmine can help repair damaged DNA.

2. Classical Greeks applied olive oil as sunscreen.

Ancient Greeks wore veils and large brimmed hats to evade the sun, and also rubbed olive oil on their skin as a line of defense. Of course, that did absolutely nothing in the way of protection, but it did make their skin very soft.

3. Indigenous peoples in North American used western hemlock.

The extract from Tsuga heterophylla, a coniferous tree of the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest, was used by the Makah and Hesquiat peoples in a salve to prevent and soothe sunburn.

4. An Austrian scientist recommended tannin as sunscreen.

Otto Veiel of Austria published one of the first reports of a substance protecting skin from ultraviolet rays in 1878. However, since tannin is a yellowish-brown organic substance in plant tissues (it's what makes tea brown), it stained the skin darker—a side effect many were trying to avoid.

5. Zinc oxide has been used as sunblock for centuries.

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Zinc oxide paste, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays of ultraviolet light, has been used for hundreds of years. But because it's not easily absorbed into the skin, its popularity has waned with anyone who doesn’t want to look like one of those comical tourists with a painted white nose. It has made a comeback in recent years as a nanoparticle in certain sunscreens, though, because even though it makes you look funny, it works really well.

6. One of the first commercial sunblocks was called Zeozon.

Before effective sunscreens were available, people avoided sunburn by applying red or yellow pastes to their skin, which were thought to absorb ultraviolet light from the sun. Alternately, people applied colorless paste and wore veils of different colors to absorb different wavelengths of light. In 1910, a sun protectant called Zeozon derived from horse chestnut tree extract went on the market, advertised as a way to avoid both sunburns and freckles.

7. Australian chemist Milton Blake devised a sunburn remedy in his kitchen.

Another early sunscreen came from Australia. Milton Blake invented a compound for sunburn cream in his kitchen in the 1920s. After 12 years of experimentation in his apartment, Blake began producing and selling the cream through his company Hamilton Laboratories. Blake’s descendants still run the company and market sunscreens.

8. A French chemist created tanning oil in 1935.

Ambre Solaire was developed in 1935 as a tanning oil by Eugene Schueller, who is better known as the founder of L’Oreal. Ambre Solaire contained a "sun filter" and promised “tanning five times faster without burning!” It can still be bought today in a variety of applications.

9. A Swiss mountaineer invented the first modern sunscreen.

Despite the previously mentioned oils and pasty balms, Swiss chemist Franz Greiter has been credited with finding the first modern sunscreen, Gletscher Crème or Glacier Cream. He got quite sunburned during a 1938 climb of Mount Piz Buin and decided an effective protection against the sun was needed; he later named his company after the mountain. Although it was effective in 1946, it's estimated that the first Glacier Cream had an SPF of only 2. More effective variations of Glacier Cream are sold today and claim “cutting edge sun protection with luxurious skincare for anyone who wants to enjoy life in the sun.”

10. Coppertone sunscreen was inspired by a veterinary product.

During World War II, airman and pharmacist Benjamin Green wanted protection from the sun during his missions, and this unfortunately named substance was the only thing available. Red Vet Pet was short for “red veterinary petrolatum,” a heavy, red, Vaseline-like goo. It was a great physical barrier and served its purpose in life raft emergency kits, but it was unpleasant to wear. Following the war, Green tweaked the ingredients, added a little cocoa butter and coconut oil, and invented Coppertone sunscreen.