It’s summertime. While the living may or may not be easy in your neck of the woods, if you spend much time in the sun, it is advisable to wear sunscreen protection. That wasn’t a major concern in our boomer years. Back then, the main objective was to limit sunburn, especially in children. The degree to which your mother applied any sunscreen product was probably proportionate to how susceptible you were to getting badly sunburned. However, there was a parallel course of action being followed by teens and adults, and that was purposely accelerating the sun’s effects to get tanned instead of actively fighting the effects of the sun’s rays.
The pendulum of beauty has swung back and forth through the centuries when it comes to the color of summer skin. Pale skin was prized in many cultures as a symbol of class and status; it meant you were not a laborer toiling in the hot sun. Forms of sunscreen using zinc oxide and titanium oxide were used in the 1920s and ’30s to block the sun’s rays and UV radiation, while at the same time fashion icon Coco Chanel was extolling the aesthetic virtue of bronzed skin. By the late 1950s, when boomers were coming of age, the pendulum was on the side of tanning. Despite scientific knowledge of the effects of the sun’s radiation for decades, these effects were not widely known by the general public.
Sunscreen was not a new invention during the boomer years. Some form of sun protection was used as far back as recorded history. The ancient Egyptians used a paste made of plants, grains and herbs, while the ancient Greeks tried olive oil. Flash forward a few millennia and you’ve got boomers on beaches slathering on baby oil. Yikes! Somehow the words “oil” and “heat” don’t add up to anything good. To confuse matters more, there were three basic types of out-in-the-sun products: tanning lotion or oil; sunblock; and sunscreen. Together they ran the gamut from little-to-no sun protection to the best available sun protection for the time.
Two of the the most popular brands of products sold during the boomer years were from Coppertone and Bain de Soleil. Both companies got their original formulation from a Navy airman who created his substance in 1944 to protect soldiers fighting in the hot sun of the Pacific during World War II. Nonetheless, Bain de Soleil actually began selling its “orange gelée” in Paris in the mid-1920s, building a business on the first-adopters of wealthy Europeans and celebrities visiting the beaches of the French Riviera.
The Coppertone Company officially came into being in 1951, adapting the original formula to be perfectly poised to take advantage of the burgeoning baby boom. The iconic image of the puppy pulling on the little girl’s swimsuit bottom to reveal her untanned skin first appeared in 1953.
Bain de Soleil brand began selling a product line in the U.S. after the War. Ownership of both companies changed hands multiple times through the years, but as of 2014, both brands are owned and marketed by the Bayer Corporation.
One thing that was invented during the boomer years was the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) system. It was developed in 1962 and appeared on some products, like Bain de Soleil, by 1964. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adopted sunscreen labeling standards in 1978, using SPF as a way for consumers to know a specific measure of how much of the sun’s radiation was reaching their skin. An SPF of 20 indicated that fractional amount (1/20) of the sun’s UVB burning radiation reaching the skin. In boomer years, SPF products were available labeled from 5 to 20. In the 1990s, the range increased to 15 to 50+. The FDA guidelines of 2012 proposed 50 as the upper limit since there is little evidence that higher SPF numbers equate to more protection. Currently, both the U.S. and Europe suggest using a sunscreen labeled as broad-spectrum for protection against both UVA (“a” as in skin aging) and UVB (“b” as in burning).
How about you, boomers? Did you use tanning oil (or baby oil), sunblock or sunscreen on your family picnics, vacations and beach outings?