Benjamin Green, an airman in the South Pacific during World War II, saw firsthand how tropical rays left soldiers with blistering sunburns. So he concocted a red gel thick enough to block the sun’s rays — red veterinary petrolatum, aka “red vet pet” — and distributed it to Army Air Corps members to slather on.
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It failed to catch on; the red goo was sticky, messy and left glaring stains. But Green refused to give up. Bent over his stove, he mixed cocoa butter and jasmine, testing batches until he had what would turn into Coppertone, the first consumer suntan product that promised a sun-kissed look. It hit the market just as fashion and medicine were celebrating a “healthy glow,” and the public lapped it up. Soon, though, the image of bronze bombshells was linked to rising skin cancer rates, and advertising quickly shifted from “suntanning” to “sun protection,” and sales picked up again. Now, years later, the sunblock market is under assault: Are we soaking up hidden risks?
Medicine couldn’t make suntanning chic — that took French fashion designer Coco Chanel.
There was a time that snow-white complexions symbolized privilege — otherwise you looked like “you were out working,” says Sarah Angleton, a historical fiction writer. But after the Industrial Revolution, it was “the workers [who] were the people cooped inside,” and the rich could afford to luxuriate in the sun. Then, in the late 1800s, the medical world got on board: In 1890, for example, Scottish medical missionary Theobold Palm observed that exposure to sunlight prevented rickets, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin D. And American physician John Harvey Kellogg began promoting the incandescent light bath, which he (incorrectly) thought could treat everything from typhoid to diabetes. Niels Ryberg Finsen, a Faroese-Danish physician, won the Nobel Prize for discovering that light radiation could treat lupus.
But medicine couldn’t make suntanning chic — that took French fashion designer Coco Chanel. When she stepped off a cruise in the 1920s, fans took note of her tawny glow, associating it with the jet set, and the look became an overnight hit. By the 1950s, the sunscreen market had soared to $ 9.2 million, and in 1959, Coppertone introduced its iconic beach girl in pigtails, bronzed except for her pale bottom, a glimpse of which was revealed by her playful puppy tugging on her swimsuit. “Don’t be a paleface!” the slogan exhorted.
But it didn’t take long before science uncovered tanning’s darker side. A 1979 British Journal of Cancer study detected a heightened risk of melanoma for people who live closer to the equator — due to more intense sunlight exposure — in England and North America. And the FDA published a report warning that excessive sun exposure could lead to skin cancer. Marketeers, however, were slow to catch on, and it wasn’t until the ’80s, following an explosion of health studies, that “sunscreen” began to replace “suntan lotion.” The product improved, too. Until the 1980s, sunscreen protected against only UVB rays. But mounting evidence that UVA rays could also contribute to cancer led to the introduction of so-called sunscreens that offer “broad-spectrum protection” against both UVA and UVB. Even the Coppertone girl smartened up, covering her now noticeably pale skin with a T-shirt. Driven by consumer anxiety, sunscreen sales in the U.S. rocketed from $ 18 million in 1972 to $ 500 million in 1996.
Recently, sunscreen has again increasingly come under fire. As the “villainization of chemicals” like BPA and phthalates in plastics over the past decade has spread, these and other ingredients in sunscreen have been subjected to rigorous scrutiny. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a paper that found benzophenone-3 — a UV absorber — in 97 percent of the urine samples analyzed, followed by another paper linking exposure to high levels of benzophenone-3 in the pregnant women studied with decreased birth weight for newborn girls and increased birth weight for newborn boys. A 2012 Environmental Science and Technology study suggests an association between benzophenone and endometriosis, a painful, chronic disease. As with BPA, some scientists are concerned that if these ingredients penetrate the skin, “they could act as endocrine disruptors,” says Kerry Hanson, a chemist at the University of California, Riverside. Endocrine disruptors may be linked to breast and other cancers, as well as cognitive and sexual development problems. Amid growing concerns, the Environmental Working Group, a sunscreen watchdog, has started releasing an annual guide that measures various products’ safety and effectiveness.
But because ingredients like zinc oxide and benzophenone act as crucial filters that block skin cancer-causing UV rays, most doctors — as well as the FDA — continue to recommend broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15. Among their biggest concerns, in fact, is that folks don’t apply enough or often enough to get maximum protection. So while the heated debate continues, it’s probably best to keep your sunscreen close at hand.