As recently reported by USA Today’s Adrianna Rodriguez, extreme heat “is the deadliest weather-related event in the United States. It kills more people than tornadoes or hurricanes — combined.” This widely disseminated news by now might not be all that surprising. What might be is that what qualifies as “extreme heat” is not as clear-cut and obvious as you might think.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, summertime temperatures that are simply much hotter or humid than average can qualify. It doesn’t seem to exactly correlate to degrees of increase, making the consequences of extreme heat not as “visually obvious” as in other natural disasters, notes Rodriguez. But the effects can be life-threatening to certain people depending on how old they are or what medical conditions they have. Explains Shawn Gibbs, dean of Texas A&M University School of Public Health: “When a heat wave rolls in, people don’t usually connect it to the injuries and loss of life that occurs. We tend to underestimate it.”
It also complicates the job of public health officials in ensuring a safe and more protective environment. It is why this time of year is traditionally filled with repeated warnings for folks to drink plenty of water and to avoid midday heat, or to seek refuge in air-conditioned buildings when possible. And even if it is just viewed as another fun-in-the-summer-sun day like the Fourth of July, remember to wear and continually reapply sunscreen, to keep cool when you can and to be prepared to recognize the warning signs of heatstroke. Heavy sweating, a rapid pulse, muscle cramps and dizziness are among them.
As to the sunscreen you choose to use, there are literally thousands of brands on the market. And it got me thinking of the days before this parade of products hit the shelves, of the things people used for protection from the sun that paved the way for what we see today.
Outlined in a brief history of sun protection methods of our ancestors and provided by the National Library of Medicine, only a century ago the world was devoid of sun-protection products. Yet as far back as ancient Egypt, they were using ingredients such as rice bran, jasmine and lupine for cosmetic reasons to block the tanning effects of the sun. According to the National Library of Medicine, it was recently discovered that rice bran absorbs ultraviolet light. In ancient Greece, they used olive oil to protect their skin from the sun and for care after sun exposure. Modern testing of olive oil confirms its mild sun-blocking properties.
In 1798, English physician Robert Willan, the founder of dermatology as a medical specialty, was first to describe a skin condition he called “eczema solare,” meaning a skin sensitivity to light. In 1889, ophthalmologist Erik Johan Widmark of Stockholm publishes a landmark study that experimentally proves UV radiation can cause skin erythema and burns.
While these earlier studies were showing the damage that could be caused by overexposure to the sun, in the 1920s, French fashion icon Coco Chanel — based on photographs of her taken following a Mediterranean cruise — began popularizing the idea of “tanning” and sunbathing. She proclaimed it to be “a sign of a healthy, leisurely, and privileged way of life” and “a new precedent of beauty for those in Western cultures,” according to the National Library of Medicine. Later, in 1935, Eugene Schueller, founder of L’Oreal, would develop the first tanning oil with “UV radiation-filtering properties.” Named Ambre Solaire, it can still be bought today.
In a 1942 top-secret experiment to study the most effective protective substances to prevent sunburn of military personnel stranded in the desert or on life rafts, an Army Air Force-commissioned study by the American Medical Association Council of Pharmacy and Chemistry came up with a dark red veterinary petroleum that was waterproof, nontoxic and inexpensive. Two years later, pharmacist Benjamin Green, “who served as an airman during World War II and used red veterinary petroleum, develops a more pleasing, consumer-friendly version of the product by adding cocoa butter and coconut oil, a combination that eventually becomes the Coppertone suntan lotion,” reports the National Library of Medicine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began to regulate the sunscreen market in 1978. By the 1980s, the sun protection factor SPF (indicating the effectiveness of protective skin preparations) becomes the standard in testing sunscreen.
Time magazine recently reported “an estimated one in five people in the U.S. will develop skin cancer during their lifetimes, and more than 7,000 people in the U.S. die from melanoma every year. Sunscreen can help prevent those outcomes. … The FDA, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many medical associations all recommend using sunscreen.”
While the idea of regularly wearing sunscreen seems like sound advice, “there’s been mounting pushback to that idea in recent years, mainly due to concerns about the health risks associated with chemicals in many popular sunscreens,” says the Time magazine report. Of the two main types of sunscreens, those based upon chemical or mineral formulas, much of the current concern centers on the chemical formulas.
“In 2019 and 2020, FDA researchers released two studies that reached the same conclusion: Common sunscreen chemicals, including oxybenzone, can pass through the skin and into the bloodstream,” reports Time’s Jamie Ducharme. “That finding also sparked alarm among some consumers, even though the researchers encouraged people to keep wearing sunscreen.”
Dr. Archana Sadhu, an endocrinologist at Houston Methodist Hospital, believes that people are ultimately better off wearing sunscreen for its benefits instead of not using it because of “unclear risks.”
According to the consumer watchdog Environmental Working Group, which evaluates the safety and efficacy of sunscreen formulas, the “vast majority” of its top-scoring sunscreens are mineral formulas.