Surviving the summers with sunscreens

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Summertime spells a whole lot of changes enacted on lifestyle and fashion and style choices of the modern day human. From favoring clothes that are breezy and airy like palazzos and skirts and cotton apparel to sticking with makeup that does not feel heavy to the skin to wearing our hair as neatly as we can so that the heat bothers us at least a tad bit less, the blazing sun dictates nearly everything about our appearance and our body consciousness. While the setting in of the summer inevitably means certain things taking centerstage, whether in choices of food or fashion or even routine traditions, one particular thing that stands out perhaps throughout the entirety of these days when the sun rules large and even most times beyond is the use of sunscreens. Swearing by a generous dab of this lotion is a prominent summertime ritual that we all indulge in, primarily to avoid those nasty sunburns that hurts as bad as they look, but also to ward off other associated health risks that stem from the carcinogenic effects the ultraviolet rays of the sun have upon human skin.

But despite the numerous ways in which sunscreens have come to assert its importance upon us, this essential skincare product is a rather recent invention. With a history that does not span even a full 100 years in its modern form, there indeed arises the curiosity about the protective mechanism adopted by people of earlier years that while still necessitated the invention of today’s bestseller, still held enough reputation to have continued upto times of the recent past. The answer lies in numerous commonplace solutions that persist even today like scarves and veils and parasols and bonnets and hats as well as in a host of ingredients sourced from nature that is what effectively makes for modern day sunscreen lotions as well, albeit in varying compositions. Based on the SPF count, or the sun protection factor, that which determines how effective a product would be as a sunscreen, different elements of nature have worked differently through the ages to ultimately have the same effect of providing sun protection.

Beginning with the ancient Egyptians, who had been the earliest pioneers of using skincare products, mostly cosmetics and makeup, making very evident their preference for a light skin tone, it isn’t any bit of a surprise that this group of early population are the first known users of ‘sunscreen’. Documented on their papyrus scrolls and tomb walls are recipes for natural sunscreens, of concoctions and pastes and potions that sure works wonders in keeping skin fair. Specifically noted are the Egyptians’ use of jasmine and rice, that which indeed are very real ways of keeping sun damage at bay from the skin. Rice bran being a host of the UV-absorbing gamma oryzanol, and jasmine known to aid repair of damaged DNA, both these ingredients ensured that the people of ancient Egypt were way ahead of their times when it came to skincare.

For another ancient people, this time the Greeks, it was olive oil that had been the go to product for warding off the effects of the sun. At a SPF count of 7 or 8, this natural ingredient isn’t the most effective sunscreen, as norms need you to wear an SPF 30 at least, but it still enjoys credibility as being even a modern day remedy in combination with other products. Another oil based way of attempting to evade the harmful effects of the sun’s rays was rooted in the native Americans for whom it was sunflower oil and pine needles or tsuga, known also as native hemlock or eastern hemlock that had been the objects of choice. The native way extends also to the Himba women of Namibia who still relies on mixing ochre with butterfat to make an otjize paste that they apply as a protective coat on their hair and skin. 

Other continuing traditions and cultures bordering on what can pass off as sunscreen are native to a number of southeast Asian countries. In Myanmar, it has been a certain golden hued thanaka cream that which has been in use for hundreds of years as a distinctive element of the cultural realm of the country. Made by grinding the bark, roots or wood of a couple of tree species, thanaka has been around since at least the 14th century though estimates place it to have been prevalent among Burmese people for some 2000 years now. As a cosmetic that helps remove acne and smoothen skin, thanaka is much coveted by the people of Myanmar also for its cooling properties and its benefits against the immense sun heat.

A similar such cultural component of the nomadic sea-going Sama-Bajau people of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia is what is called the borak or burak. A paste of rice, water weeds and spices, mostly turmeric, burak is mostly worn by women to protect the face and other uncovered parts of the body from the harsh tropical sun when out at work in the sea. An equally natural ingredient, but one of mineral basis that has been used since at least the 500 BC as some form of sun protection and continues to find way into a range of modern day sunscreen products is zinc oxide. Wearing zinc oxide directly on the skin isn’t very visually appealing though which is why it isn’t applied the traditional way today, by ‘painting’ faces with it.

Beyond ancientries and nativity though, sunscreens as a product started emerging on the radar only from the 19th century or more ‘modernly’ from the century following it. However, worthy of mention is a particular way that had been adopted by upper class women in Western Europe during the 1500s. Not a sunscreen per se, in that this wasn’t a concoction of ingredients that served to protect the skin, the not so innocuous way of seeking to keep intact the fairness of skin means that women of those times resorted to wearing uncomfortable black velvet masks called visards. The earliest synthetic sunscreens were likely developed in 1928 while the first effective modern sunscreen is often cited to be the 1946 Austrian product called Glacier Cream. A couple of years before this proper invention arose a rather greasy sunscreen that though came to command wide popularity in usage. Produced in 1944 at the height of the Second World War, this product called the Red Vet Pet was introduced as a petroleum jelly based substance which worked only to a limited extent, not surprising given how petroleum jelly has never been an effective variant of sun protection. Water resistant sunscreen came some decades later while interestingly, zinc oxide, one of the earliest known ingredients that afforded protection against the sun found its way into modern day sunscreen lotions only in the 1980s. The superlative potential of zinc oxide though was put into wide use in the following times, as the ingredient emerged to become one of the most important component of mineral sunscreens.

With the rage for all things natural that dominates every aspect of human existence today, it isn’t surprising that sunscreens based on as many natural ingredients as possible are being developed even as these ingredients in itself are also applied in their most natural form to afford some degree of sun protection. While some of the most widely used agents of sun protection like coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil or the wonder ingredients of shea butter and aloe vera are mildly effective, there exists some other more effective solutions in the natural world that remain lesser popular. The important thing to note here however is that the SPF levels of all these natural ingredients are much lower than the recommended levels required to afford you decent enough protection from the sun, so using them or a combination of them can only be a resort if you are out of proper sunscreen or if you would be out in the sun for really short periods of time. As it turns out then, it would be best to stick to naturally formulated sunscreens that make for clean and organic beauty products rather than taking the natural route out of your own, however ingeniously appealing it might sound.

What remains however a less explored means of securing protection from the sun rays by means of natural ingredients is through such food items that contain effective agents acting against sunburn. Carotenoids are such a group of antioxidants that act particularly to mitigate the tanning effects of the sun on the human body that which therefore makes foods like carrots and salmon, with beta carotene and astaxanthin components respectively, great oral picks for mitigating sun damage. Even foods rich in other antioxidants can be helpful which is why nuts and seeds act not just in their mechanism of application upon the skin but also through their consumption as ‘sunscreens’. Other Viatmin C rich foods also work as does cool cucumbers and watery watermelons, sweet potatoes and green teas, dark chocolate and oatmeal, buttermilk and coffee and red wine, and numerous such delicious picks that make staving the sun a really fun and healthy play, one that renders you not just somewhat immune to the ravages of the summertime fiasco but also ends up endowing you with a different manifestation of health and beauty altogether.


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