When did suntan lotion become sunscreen?
March 9, 2008 9:06 AM   Subscribe

When did "suntan lotion" become "sunscreen"?

I experienced many sunburns as a child, having red hair and growing up in the "Big Sky Country" of Western Montana. My memory is that "suntan lotion" available in the late 1960's and early 1970's had no UV protection qualities whatsoever, but I'm not certain of this. I've seen photographs of mountain climbers from many years ago with what appears to be zinc oxide based creams on their noses, so I know that was available. But I'm curious about products intended for use all over, wherever skin is exposed.

To the best of my knowledge, genuinely effective "sunscreen" didn't become available until the 1980's, but I'm not sure about this. Was "sunscreen" available in the 60's and 70's and I just missed the boat?
posted by Tube to Health & Fitness (12 answers total)
Did you try searching for the history of sunscreen? The Wikipedia article is right there near the top.
posted by rhapsodie at 9:14 AM on March 9, 2008

I know that sunscreen was available when I was a child in the 70's. My mom slathered it on us and the scent of Coppertone always reminds me of family vacations at the shore.

Having said that, I'm pretty sure it was only SPF 4 or 8. I remember when my mom found us a bottle of 15 and it was a big deal.
posted by 26.2 at 9:50 AM on March 9, 2008

Sunscreen was definitely available in the late 1960s and 70s, even though it was either called or just referred to as "suntan lotion," which is sort of a misleading name. Most of it had lower protection factors, which is probably why you used to burn. We used to use Coppertone in SPF either 2 or 4, and I think the highest number I remember using back then was 8. It wasn't until the 80s and the research about sun damage exploded in the press that the name changed 15 became the norm.

There was tanning oil, which had no SPF was whose sold purpose was to attract the sun in sort of the same principle as sauteeing meat -- fat + heat + browning. And there was also a more solid version of cocoa butter sold for the same principle. Maybe those are what you recall.
posted by boomchicka at 9:50 AM on March 9, 2008

I always thought of the two as being separate entities :

suntan lotion = helps you get a tan
suncreen = helps prevent a tan/burn
posted by Afroblanco at 10:00 AM on March 9, 2008

I regret not doing a more thorough traditional search, as indeed there are a number of webpages devoted to the subject. This one rather confirms what I had believed in the first place:

Recognition of the need to block the ultraviolet spectrum was made in the 1960's and 1970's. Late in the 1960's the first sunscreens appeared. They were crude and not very effective, however, improvements continued to be made.
posted by Tube at 10:29 AM on March 9, 2008

I think it was mostly just marketing. Before skin cancer became a big deal in the 80s tans were considered a good thing, so they marketed the stuff as tanning lotion and kept the SPF low. Today, the sun is evil so they sell it as sunscreen with an SPF of 50.
posted by COD at 10:32 AM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of products, many of them SPF-2 or -4 or so, that are still marketed as tanning lotion rather than as sunscreen.
posted by box at 10:35 AM on March 9, 2008

Yeah, when I was a kid the highest spf I remember slathering on my pale skin was 4 or 8, I don't recall there being anything higher even available. I just don't think it was a priority to have the sunscreen back then, it was all about getting as dark as possible as fast as possible and that's what the names of the lotions tried to sell to the customers. If a lotion had SPF, it was written small on the bottle, whereas now they are trying to sell the protection that people want so they promote the sunscreen factor as big as possible. It's all about marketing and sales.

Growing up in San Diego in the 70s & 80s, avoiding the sun or purposely protecting your skin from having a gloriously cool suntan was a very mockable offense. When I was in high school, many people very literally went to the beach EVERY day of their summer vacation (zzzzzz) and taking high SPF sunscreen would've been unheard of. It was all about getting MORE sun. Everyone was always lecturing "The sun's good for you! It makes you look healthy and more attractive!" and obsessing over how they could get tanner (i.e., cooler) than everyone else, not over skin cancer.

My high school best friend's skin currently looks like an alligator suitcase compared to mine though... so who's getting mocked now? Mwwaaaaahhhhahahahah!!!!
posted by miss lynnster at 10:57 AM on March 9, 2008

I think the (w)hole thing reached cultural flashover as a result of concern about CFC-driven ozone depletion:

In 1976 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released a report which concluded that the ozone depletion hypothesis was strongly supported by the scientific evidence.
posted by jamjam at 11:00 AM on March 9, 2008

...you are not from Queensland Australia, are you? :) Obviously!

I think it happened around the same time they clicked that the sun will kill you? (- Being pale as a lily and living here will make that sentence pretty darn apt if you're not careful.)

Who's to say if it is the Ozone or not? But back in the day, people wore clothes and 'lilies' were found well away from the equator!

posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 11:38 AM on March 9, 2008

We called it "tanning butter."
Talk about baking potatoes, baking in the sun!
posted by iconjack at 2:24 PM on March 9, 2008

Late 70s/early 80s. It's important to realize they're two different products, but one was much more commonly used than the other, until the point at which the other became more commonly used.

"Suntan lotion" actually was meant to help you get a tan, by doing things (or so they said) to intensify/magnify the sun's rays or to activate melatonin in the skin.

"Sunscreen" started to be common on the late 70s when people began to connect skin cancers with prolonged sun exposure and sunburns. Sunscreen can be idenfitied because it comes along with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF). Yes, SPFs increased only gradually. For a long time, something in the 30s was the highest available (now I have one that is a 50, a surfer variety). The number is a factor: how much longer you can stay in the sun before damage is caused than you could without screening. 4 SPF = 4 times longer. 36 SPF = 36 times longer.

Suntan lotion has no SPF because you're not trying to screen anything.

Today, most people use sunscreen and few use suntan lotion. It's still around, though: check for the Hawaiian Tropic display near the puka shell necklaces and sunglasses.

To further complicate matters, a lot of people still call "sunscreen" "suntan lotion," by which they generically mean "Stuff you slather on your skin at the beach." As meanwhile, the companies that produce sunscreens with sun protection factors now emphasize 'safe tanning' and that sort of thing.

But yeah, late 70s.
posted by Miko at 3:49 PM on March 9, 2008

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