The Sunscreen Conundrum


The Greeks used olive oil to protect their skin against the sun.  The Egyptians used pastes of rice and jasmine. Sunscreen has come a long way since then, but its evolution hasn’t been without controversy.

The first sun tan lotion was developed around 1938 by a Swiss chemistry student named Fran Greiter, who got sunburned as he climbed Mount Piz Buin in the Alps. Then in 1944, pharmacist Benjamin Green, who was serving as an airman in World War II, used red veterinary petrolatum as a physical barrier to prevent ultraviolet rays from hitting his skin.

Sunscreens have come a long way since then, and in recent years the average consumer has been constantly bombarded with different and conflicting information about them. You might read from one source that the higher the SF number, the better protection you’ll get, then saw somewhere else that high SF isn’t really that useful. And in the last few years there’s been a growing concern that sunscreens contain all kinds of chemicals that harm coral reefs. If all this leaves you confused, we are here to help.

Here are some of your sunscreen questions, answered:

Is higher SPF better?
You’ve probably heard that sunscreens with an SPF over 50 only provide a negligible increase in protection. This is mostly true, because SPF 50 already blocks 98 percent of UVB radiation. Going over 50 can only give you another percent or so of protection. But this idea is based on principle, not on actual experiments. The only randomised, double-blinded study that has been conducted on SPF efficacy in preventing sunburn found that SPF 100 did prevent burns more effectively than SPF 50.

Are spray-on sunscreens better or worse?
Sprayed sunscreen often ends up in the wind, and more could end up on the sand than on your skin. Even discounting the possibility that inhaling the mist could be bad for your lungs, it’s worth remembering that a fine mist is less likely to provide adequate coverage than a lotion or cream.

Can I just take a sunscreen pill?
No. In 2018 the US Food Drug Administration sent warning letters to three manufacturers of supplements claiming to protect you from radiation, telling them to stop falsely advertising the benefits of their pills. The USFDA noted that there’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen and to instead opt for one of the traditional forms available in the market.

No to sunscreen pills.

Which ingredients harm coral reefs?
In recent years there’s been an increasing awareness of how much our sunscreen can potentially harm coral reefs. Research shows that oxybenone, a common chemical in sunscreen, along with a few others, quickly bleach the coral and damage its DNA, and it only takes a single drop in 4.3 million gallons of water to do the damage.

In an effort to protect coral reefs, the US state of Hawaii has banned oxybenone altogether. And not swimming in the ocean doesn’t help you avoid the problem entirely, because when you get home, you’ll wash that sunscreen down the drain and it can still end up in the ocean all the same.