Sun Protection Through History
Have you ever wondered what measures ancient civilisations and different cultures have taken over time to protect their skin from damage caused by the sun?
For as long as humans have inhabited the earth we have been dependent, intrigued, wary, fascinated and drawn to the sun. We have depended on it for light, warmth, energy, health, food and happiness – without it we wouldn’t exist!
But the sun can in a sense be a weapon to us, damaging our skin and causing cancers that can sadly end lives – and this seems to have been known for thousands of years…
Following are some fun facts about ancient sun protection that you might find interesting!
Olive oil was used by the ancient Greeks for sun protection both on the skin and in their diet. Modern science has proven that olive oil only has an SPF of 7-8, however it is thought (though not scientifically proven) that melanoma growth may be slowed by consumption of the antioxidant-rich oil.
Ancient Egyptians used extracts of rice, jasmine and lupine plants to keep their skin protected and fair.
Tribes in Papua New Guinea used a mix of clay and/or charcoal, or mud from nearby rivers to cover their bodies, which gave protection against the sun and also mosquitos. Body paint has always been traditionally used in ceremonious rituals throughout the country for various reasons, however the added sun protection is often a lesser-known bonus.
Tribal body-painting in Papua New Guinea. Image credit Gudmundur Fridriksson.
Indigenous Australians used to protect themselves from the sun using mud and leaves; they also used tea tree oil to relieve sunburn. The Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert used to make shade structures known as malurnpa out of spinifex or eucalyptus leaves.
Namibian tribes made ‘otjize’ which is a mixture of butterfat and ochre to protect their skin in the sun.
A Himba woman covers her giggling son with otjize. Image credit: Jami Tarris
In Myanmar, for over 2000 years and even today, a natural paste called ‘Thanaka’ is used to protect against the sun; it is made from ground bark and is rich in vitamin E so also assists with other skin issues from dryness to acne.
Burmese girls wearing thanaka – image credit: Insight Guides.
Some Native American tribes used a type of pine needle which would be ground down and mixed with tree sap.
Tannin, made from plant tissue, was used in some parts of Europe in the late 1800s.
Clay was used in some parts of Africa to protect skin in the sun, along with the use of animal skins used over the shoulders for protection.
Sunscreen as we know it has been produced since the 1940s and has evolved over the years to protect in different ways. For more information on what makes up a good sunscreen please see my article here.
Damage to skin as a result of UV exposure has been known for thousands of years, probably not to the extent of what we know today, but humans through time seem to have known that they needed to protect themselves from it – the pain from one burn quickly teaches us that we need to be wary of prolonged sun exposure!
We are fortunate to now have access to thoroughly-researched sunscreens and fabrics that can cover parts of our bodies and provide protection from UV rays; UPF fabric blocks out a significant percentage (approximately 98%) of harmful rays and has a large number of advantages over sunscreen-use alone.
Tribe Tropical’s range of sun-safe swimwear and hats offer broad spectrum sun protection; you can shop the UPF50+ range of swimsuits and hats here.
Author: Emily Gradon