Sunscreen: A History and Overview

When you think of sunscreen, maybe you think of a fresh coconut smell, taking you back to the local swimming pool as a kid, popsicle in hand. Or maybe you become nostalgic as you reminisce on your first summer job as a lifeguard. What you probably don’t think about is a giant glacier in Switzerland, the soldiers of World War II or even DNA Damage & Repair, all important talking points in the history of sunscreen!
Let’s go back in time to the 1940s/late 1930s. Here we meet Franz Greiter; PhD in physiology and avid mountain climber. One day while climbing Piz BuinBe on the Swiss-Austrian border, Greiter had it with the severe glacier burns he was accustomed to while mountaineering. He decided to embark on a tincture to not only treat but prevent this from happening. Named both after the mountain and the experience, Greiter introduced to the world Gletscher (Glacier) Creme, under the brand entitled the aforementioned Piz Buni, a brand that still exists today.

Meanwhile, Greiter’s photobiologist counterpart Benjamin Green, a pharmacist and aviator in the USA was working on a concoction of his own to protect his fellow soldiers from the beating rays of the sun. While he started slathering on veterinary petrolatum or “red vet pet” , and it indeed was thick enough to block out sun rays, it was a heavy sticky uncomfortable experience for users. However, all good designers are eager to try their second iterations; therefore Green moved on to mixing Red Vet petrolatum, cacao butter and coconut oil, providing the first pleasant, physical UV blocker in the American market.

Before the involvement of the FDA, Piz Buin introduced sunscreens with the first UVA and UVB Filters.  It wasn’t until the 1990s that the FDA approved avobenzone as the first UVA filter with subsequent chemicals being approved as UVA and UVB filters shortly after. From the 1990s onwards, many studies were conducted on both the effects of suntanning and the risks of the sunscreens. In 2014, a policy actually entitled the Sunscreen Innovation Act (SIA), turned skeptics into concerned product users with its jarring details on the rates of skin cancer in the USA, with “melanoma killing one person an hour” and public figures like Snooki Polizzi from reality TV show Jersey Shore, promoting the use of tanning beds, being “public menaces”. The SIA was not only crucial because of the urgency to protect against the sun, but also because of the need to improve the gaping lack of safety data of the products used for protection themselves, confirmed in the recent report from the FDA detecting the high amounts of chemicals being absorbed into our bloodstream from our sunscreens.  The bill proposed an eleven month review period for the current compounds on the market in order to gather enough information on how to bring them up to global standards. It has now been 7 years since this act and the FDA is still in systematic review and testing periods. An example of a class of UV filter compounds that have been tested during this time are the benzones. Oxybenzone and Avobenzone specifically, both UVA and UVB filters.


A bit of background in the science of UV rays. While UVB rays cause external damage like your common sun (or glacial!) burns, UVA is penetrating your epidermis and is a greater cause of long term age associated damage. These rays not only come from the sun but also tanning beds and other man made light sources. Oxybenzone is an organic compound, used to filter these rays. However, many studies have recently “shone light” upon the correlation between subjection of oxybenzone to UV and the increase in free radicals in your body. Similar studies have shown the same effect in Avobenzone, a lab synthesized derivative of dibenzoylmethane, another organic compound with UV absorbing characteristics. Free radicals are atoms with unpaired electrons that are highly reactive with other biochemical structures in your body, perhaps interacting and causing damage or harm to those structures.
According to the article from the Wall Street Journal in July of 2020, the FDA states that if the concentrations of the active ingredients found in your bloodstreams exceeds 0.5 ng/ml, they should immediately be scrutinized to see the correlation with risk of cancer, birth defects or other health concerns. The FDA study listed 6 common compounds (usually listed as “active ingredients” with their relative percentages on the back of sunscreen packaging) as high risk; avobenzone, oxybenzone, homosalate, octycrylene, octisalate, and octinoxate.
Back in November 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the United States, the FDA had started a proposal for a safety rule that required the industry of sunscreen and cosmetics to develop more intensive platforms for further testing and improvement of these compounds. However, with all that has gone on during the pandemic, this proposal was shelved in the meantime. This is certainly a hot area that biotechnology companies in the space may want to consider getting involved in understanding the risks of your sun protection poses a paradox; how can we safely protect against the sun if our own protection is deemed unsafe? Well, as of right now, the FDA highly recommends seeking out mineral sunscreens with the ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These products are in your local beauty stores like Ulta and Sephora, or even sold via all natural shops online. You can also utilize from the environmental working group, which celebrities in the space like clean beauty guru Kourtney Kardashian have endorsed to search the safety ratings of your products. On top of these measures, wearing hats and physical barriers to the suns damage is ultimately the safest way to minimize harmful exposures. Understanding the risks that go with your sun protection may at first be concerning, but ultimately there are solutions and knowing these risks pave the way for new safer compounds to be developed soon. Sun protection is a critical part of a daily routine and like anything should be used, but used in moderation. In the meantime companies like us over at Amelia Technologies are aiming to make strides in order to develop technologies that accurately  and efficiently test the safety of the compounds in question. Stay tuned for future updates!

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