Suggested Learning

Good day sunshine

Steve Ainsworth explores the history of taking care in the sun and the advent of the SPF

It is a curious quirk of the English language that the words ‘parasol’ and ‘umbrella’ mean the same thing – the former meaning ‘against the sun’ and the latter ‘little shade’.

This triumph of linguistic fashion over common-sense strongly suggests that some of our ancestors were more worried about sunshine than rain.

And indeed this was the case. Just as Chinese mandarins once grew 12-inch fingernails as a visible sign that they did not work with their hands, likewise Victoria ladies shunned the sun. Those ladies prized their pale complexions. They hid from the sun under parasols (or umbrellas!). No lady would want to be taken for a common farm-worker.

Yet fashions change. Today pharmacists everywhere benefit greatly from the sale of sun-tan related products.

What happened? Steam engines, cinema and holidays, that’s what. The industrial revolution drove workers from the fields and into darkness. Mansfield miners and Manchester mill girls rarely saw the sun. Now workers had the palest skin.

And workers with a few pennies to spare could go to the cinema and see how their betters had begun to live. Celebrities, film stars, and royalty such as the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson, holidayed abroad, showing off their privileged lifestyles now by getting suntans.

By the 1920s however the novelty of paid holidays allowed millions of Britons to head for Bridlington, Blackpool and Brighton, all of them determined to get suntanned just like those rich folk they’d seen at the cinema.

Soothing salves

The downside of course was getting sunburnt. Summertime sales of soothing salves to treat sun-scorched skin soared.

And one of the best prescriptions for sunburn remains one of the oldest: calamine lotion, in use for more than 3,000 years.

Yet prevention is always better than cure. The first synthetic sunscreens appeared in 1928, but the first major commercial product was marketed in 1936 by French chemist Eugène Schueller, the founder of L’Oréal. A decade later another of the earliest sunscreens was produced for the US military by airman and pharmacist Benjamin Green. It was an unpleasant red, sticky substance similar to Vaseline. The hazards of sunburn had become apparent to soldiers in the Pacific during World War II. Green’s product, Red Vet Pet (red veterinary petrolatum), worked as a physical block to ultraviolet radiation.

Back in Europe, Swiss chemist Franz Greiter introduced the first modern sunscreen in 1946. Gletscher Crème (Glacier Cream), subsequently became the basis for the company Piz Buin. The firm still markets sunscreen named in honour of the mountain where Greiter suffered the sunburn that inspired him.

In 1974, Greiter adapted earlier calculations by Friedrich Ellinger and Rudolf Schulze and introduced the ‘sun protection factor’. Greiter’s calibration has since become the worldwide standard for measuring the effectiveness of sunscreen.

The arrival of a standard for sun protection arrived just as the modern Mediterranean package holiday was getting into its stride.

Thus pharmacies helped save Britain from an epidemic of sunburn-induced skin cancer. Inevitably however there is a downside to using too much sunscreen. Since the first half of the 20th century it has been known that exposure the sunshine helps the body create vitamin D.

Rickets risk

In 1914 American researchers Elmer McCollum and Marguerite Davis had discovered a substance in cod liver oil they dubbed ‘vitamin A’.

Eight years later, in 1922, McCollum tested cod liver oil from which vitamin A had been eliminated. The modified oil cured test dogs of rickets. McCollum concluded that the factor in cod liver oil which cured rickets was distinct from vitamin A. He called it vitamin D because it was the fourth vitamin to be discovered.
Rickets is a skeletal disorder that’s caused by a lack of vitamin D, calcium, or phosphate. People with rickets may have weak and soft bones, stunted growth, and skeletal deformities.

In 1923 American biochemist Harry Steenbock, based at the University of Wisconsin, demonstrated that irradiation by ultraviolet light increased the vitamin D content in both foods and people.

It was soon established that when 7-dehydrocholesterol is irradiated with light, a form of a fat-soluble vitamin is produced (now known as D3). The discovery prompted American physician Alfred Fabian Hess to famously remark: “Light equals vitamin D”.

These developments led to the almost complete elimination of rickets in western countries.

Yet remarkably in recent years rickets has been on the rise again in the UK: according to one report the highest incidence in 50 years.

The reasons behind that increase are complex. Some suggest increasing summer cloud cover over the UK has had a part to play, others that parental paranoia over the risk of melanoma has resulted in children being ‘overdosed’ with sunscreen. Yet another element may be the increasing numbers of children with darker-pigmented skin which makes it harder to absorb the sun’s rays.

Yet, at least during this untypical British summer, pharmacists are surely far more likely to encounter cases of extreme sunburn than of rickets.

Meanwhile, although we Britons have never had a proper word for a device to keep us dry during downpours, inexplicably the French do – a ‘parapluie’ – against the rain.

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