What was life like before SPF 30? Through the centuries humankind battled the sun with palm frond parasols, Viking eyeliner and velveteen face masks.

By Austin Bailey

May 15, 2020

Illustrations of three historical methods of sun protection

 Sunscreen is a must during the summer months, or any time of the year if you're getting a lot of sun exposure. But sunscreen is a fairly recent invention. Here are a few of the creative ways humans worldwide have protected ourselves from the sun throughout history.

Infographic of historical methods of sun protection.
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Sunscreen as we know it didn’t exist until the last 100 years, but the sun has been around much longer than that. So how did people protect themselves before modern sunscreen came along?


People concocted pastes and potions to keep their skin fair. One of their go-to ingredients, rice bran, absorbs ultraviolet rays so well that it’s still used in some sunscreen formulations today.


Centuries ago, people in polar regions figured out how to fend off eyeball sunburn that results in a temporary condition called snow blindness. Early indigenous peoples of Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Greenland fashioned goggles from leather, bone, ivory or wood. The goggles’ tiny slits reduced the field of vision but kept out damaging UV rays.


The Himba women of Namibia coat their hair and skin in a reddish paste called otjize, a blend of butter, fat and red ochre. Some speculate the tradition began as a way to ward off sun or insects, but modern Himba say it’s simply for looks. 


To prevent sunburn during his high-flying missions, World War II airman Benjamin Green created “Red Vet Pet,” short for “red veterinary petrolatum.” The red-tinted jelly was slimy and sticky, but Green’s quest for a better formula eventually led him to found Coppertone, a sunscreen company still popular today.


To keep their skin porcelain white, upper-class Western European women in the 16th century donned visards. These terrifying black velvet masks had no strings or straps, but stayed in place because wearers would clench a bead or button sewn to the back between their teeth.


Burmese women have long used Thanaka, a golden paste made from the bark of the Limonia acidissima tree, as a decorative shield against the sun’s burning rays.


Fanned palm fronds made up the first parasols, used by ancient Assyrian royalty to shade themselves from the sun. Parasols’ popularity spread around the globe, and later models were made of leather, silk, cotton and paper.


Vikings and other early Scandinavians rocked eyeliner to cut the sun’s glare. Both men and women painted on a mixture of antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper and ash to protect their vision in battle and in the fields.


The first documented use of zinc occurred in India around 500 BC when it was used to treat open wounds. Zinc doesn’t absorb into the skin, but remains on the surface as a physical sun barrier. Because it is not harmful to coral reefs, zinc is considered a good eco-friendly sunscreen to this day.


Across Southeast Asia, people use different variations of a conical hat to keep cool and shaded. In Vietnam, the hat is called a nón lá, which means “leaf hat.” Secured by a sash under the chin, these hats are sometimes dipped in water to keep the wearers cool.