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Sunscreen

Published
  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 1

    To many of us, the smell of sunscreen immediately brings back memories of summer, whether you spent yours in woodsy camps, swimming pools, at the beach, or just generally outside. It also evokes a mantra that—at least in recent generations—we’ve heard time and time again: You have to wear sunscreen.

    Sunscreen today protects the skin from the undesirable effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (or UV) light—namely, sunburns. Sunburns are radiation burns from UV rays, which can affect DNA in skin cells. Constant exposure to the sun or a handful of intense burns can lead to melanoma, which kills about one in every 100,000 people, or 60,000 people across the globe annually. (Sun damage can also lead to hyperpigmentation or wrinkles, but these are mainly cosmetic issues.)

    Historically, though, the sunscreen industry was in denial about the sun’s harmful effects, based on the ideal of a tanned, yet white, beauty. Coppertone, a US-based company, realized it could market low-SPF products as “suntan lotions” that would allow the skin to tan without the harmful effects of burning. That’s not how it works, of course, and today sunscreen fills up whole aisles—even some makeups and daily moisturizers contain reagents to block out the UV rays.

    But sunscreen, while vitally important in some cases, has its own exclusive history. In an effort to push back against the tanning industry, dermatology associations have made blanket statements that everyone needs sunscreen any time they venture outside. Turns out, the science is a little more complicated than that.

    Let’s apply ourselves.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 2

    3: Types of UV rays the sun emits, although only two reach us (thanks to our atmosphere’s handy ozone layer)

    2x: How much snow’s reflectivity can increase UV strength

    4: Average UV Index—a measure of the expected UV exposure, on a scale of 1-11+—at midday in Miami in winter

    10-11: Average UV Index at midday in Miami in summer

    80%: How much of the sun’s UV rays can pass through clouds

    ~93%: How much of the sun’s UV rays can pass through umbrellas (remember—shade isn’t protection)

    1 million: New cases of non-malignant skin cancers, like basal-cell carcinomas, annually (likely an underestimate)

    300,000: New cases of melanoma annually

    ~60,000: Deaths caused by melanoma annually

    93%: Amount of UVB rays SPF 15 blocks

    99%: Amount of UVB rays SPF 100 blocks

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  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 3

    No, actually.

    Last year, the writer Rowan Jacobsen published a piece in Outside Magazine stating, with scientific evidence to back it up, that people with darker skin do not—and maybe even shouldn’t—wear sunscreen on a daily basis.

    His argument comes from the fact that people with darker skin naturally have more melanin—the body’s protection against UV rays. These individuals may not burn, or may not burn as quickly, as people with lighter skin.

    It also may take people with darker skin longer to get some of the vital benefits from the sun, like coaxing the body to make vitamin D and to naturally lower blood pressure. Vitamin D deficiencies and high blood pressure can lead to myriad health problems, from poor bone density to cognitive impairment. Of course, there are other ways to control blood pressure and get vitamin D through medications and diets, but sunlight is one of the easiest, cheapest, and most readily available delivery mechanisms.

    When dermatologists give a blanket recommendation of wearing sunscreen daily to all their patients, they do a disservice to those with higher levels of melanin. And, Jacobsen argues, because the medical establishment has historically abused dark-skinned people—particularly Black people—study groups that have formed the basis of daily recommendations mostly fail to include people of color.

    Of course, people with dark skin can still develop skin cancer, including melanoma. But in these cases, a genetic component plays a bigger role than sun exposure. It’s important to recognize how Black people and other minorities may have been excluded from this research in the past—but that doesn’t mean that daily sunscreen recommendations should be thrown out entirely. People with light skin absolutely need the protection of UV blockers. And, as Slate’s Shannon Palus points out, most people are really bad at applying adequate amounts of sunscreen, which is why it’s still important to remind them to do it.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 4

    “To be clear, using regular sunscreen may help with reducing other effects of the sun’s rays such as sunburns, wrinkling, photoaging, and freckling, which are all positive, but for the average Black person sunscreen is unlikely to reduce their low risk of melanoma any further.”

    Adewole S. Adamson, dermatologist specializing in melanoma working at the University of Texas at Austin

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  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 6

    c. 2500 BCE: Ancient Egyptians use rice bran and jasmine to keep their skin fair; this method may have actually been effective because some of the UV blocking and healing properties of this combination may help heal DNA.

    1801: Johann Wilhelm Ritter, a chemist from what is now Poland, discovers UV rays.

    Early 1930s: H.A. Milton Blake, a chemist from Australia, comes up with an anti-sunburn cream.

    1944: Benjamin Green, a pharmacist, uses something called “red veterinary petrolatum” to prevent sunburns during WWII. It probably served as more of a physical barrier to the sun than anything else, and it smelled terrible. He eventually figured out that coconut oil would help with the lotion’s appeal, and his new formula went on to become the first batch of Coppertone.

    1960s: Scientists introduce the concept of sun protection factor, or SPF. Technically, this is a multiplier factor; it increases the length of time you can be outside without any sun protection before the sun’s UV damage causes trouble.

    1970s: Scientists find filters that distinguish between UVA and UVB rays.

    1978: The US Food and Drug Administration starts regulating sunscreens—manufacturers now have to prove that their products protect against some UV rays.

    1980s: Tanning oils are hugely popular in the US. These exacerbate sun damage without offering any protection.

    1988: The US FDA finally gets around to approving sunscreen that protects against UVA rays…but excludes UVB rays. Any UVB protection is, in fact, a lucky mistake.

    2019: The FDA requires all sunscreen products of at least 15 SPF cover both UVA and UVB rays.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 7

    Clothing can work as a barrier to the sun’s harmful rays, but it really depends on the material. Jeans, polyester, or nylon-based clothing can block 98% or more of UV light, but a white cotton tee-shirt provides about as much protection as SPF 10 lotion.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 8

    Like most answers in science, it’s not a hard yes or no, but rather an “it depends.” Luckily, Michelle Wong, a chemist based in Australia, breaks down the exact calculations you need to make your skin care decisions.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 9

    Sure, if you’re prone to burning, having a bit of extra melanin as an adaptation will protect you from some of your future sun exposure. However, the damage to your skin you put in by getting a base tan—especially if it’s from a tanning booth and not from everyone’s favorite star—negates that benefit.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Sunscreen — Card 10

    The song—which is more of a rhythmic chanting of advice like “do something every day that scares you”—came out in 1997, with Australian actor Lee Perry on the vocals. It’s largely credited to be the work of Baz Luhrmann, the director behind Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, and the remake of The Great Gatsby, although another theory at the time suggested that it was actually the writer Kurt Vonnegut.

    Neither actually wrote the words. Instead, it was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune named Mary Schmich, in a column she wrote for the paper. The Telegraph interviewed her about the bizarre experience of having her words misattributed so widely. Fortunately, she’s been getting royalties this whole time.

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