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646: Sunscreen

Aside from actually covering one’s skin with clothing, attempts to prevent sunburns have included just about anything and everything under the sun (pun not intended). Some ancient recipes may have included things like rice bran oil, iron, horse chestnut extract, clay and tar.

Modern records about sunscreen start around the 1800s, when Johan Widmark utilized acidified quinine to try and block the radiation of the sun from reaching the skin.

In the 1940s, the US Government asked researchers to come up with a way to protect troops from the sun, and red vet pet – red veterinary petrolatum – got slathered on skin. Since then, products using both physical barriers, such as titanium dioxide – as well as chemical barriers – have become common in sunscreen.  And the link between sun exposure and skin cancer is very well understood.

That doesn’t mean everyone uses the products, though. In the UK, over a quarter of citizens report not using sunscreen. And in the US, the number can go as high as 40 percent. That may explain why, in 2013, there were an estimated 33,826 ER visits for sunburn nationwide. Skin cancer rates have also doubled in the UK recently, which is partially blamed on the lack of sunscreen use.

But that doesn’t necessarily stop some sunscreens from getting banned. In 2018, the state of Hawaii banned some sunscreen chemicals that may be damaging to coral reefs. But maybe all of this might be a moot point. According to Smithsonian magazine, some researchers are investigating the possibility that a particular genetic quirk in zebrafish might result in a sunscreen pill, rather than cream, spray, or lotion to slather on.