A Brief History of Sunscreen in the United States

This year is Allure’s 30th Anniversary, and we’re celebrating by looking back at iconic moments in beauty from the past three decades. You can read more articles like this one here.

Here’s an inconvenient truth: The sun is not your skin’s friend. We know the seriousness of sun-damage. And we also know the importance of wearing sunscreen every single day — whether you are indoors or outdoors. (Just ask any dermatologist.) 

As obvious as it sounds now, it’s taken time to get here. Decades to be exact. The significance of sunscreen and protecting your skin from sun damage hasn’t always been so well understood. The idea of UV rays and sunscreen and skin cancer all being analogous is relatively recent. And even today, the sobering reality is that “only one in three adults regularly use sunscreen when spending time outdoors,” Dawn Holman, a behavioral scientist for the CDC told Allure

While we still have a way to go, we have made incredible strides since the 1990s and 2000s when tanning beds weren’t considered risky business, it wasn’t even an option to buy a moisturizer with SPF, and Jergens Natural Glow wasn’t yet available at your local drugstore. In a big way, the changes that have happened are a reflection of so many new sophisticated sunscreen formulas, heightened awareness on sun-safety by The American Academy of Dermatology, and important regulations from the FDA.

Below, a look at some of the most pivotal points in self-tanning and sun protection from the past 30 years.

Early 1990s

SPF 30 becomes available (before that, your main options were SPF 15 or lower).


World, meet Britney Spears. The video for “…Baby One More Time” debuts, ushering in a new bronze era. The public health implications are real: Indoor tanning causes skin cancer, but a whole lot of teens partake before prom.


The FDA approves Mexoryl SX, an ingredient that blocks UVB and UVA rays and doesn’t break down in sunlight the way other chemical sunscreens can. L’Oréal Paris, which owns the formula’s patent, starts selling it in La Roche-Posay Anthélios SX in the U.S., and beauty insiders no longer have to smuggle the cult-y lotion from overseas vacations.


Tan culture jumps the shark on Jersey Shore (GTL y’all), just as every step of our beauty routines— from serums to setting sprays — is getting infused with sunscreen (but remember: not replacing sunscreen!).


Indoor tanning is taxed 10 percent under the Affordable Care Act, and the Federal Trade Commission shuts down the Indoor Tanning Association’s marketing campaign that claims health benefits from tanning. Bloomberg News later reports that, between 2008 and 2015, 30 percent of tanning salons have shuttered, according to one marketer.


Progress is being made in sun-safety education…. and yet, Allure reports on colleges and universities offering on-campus (and often free) indoor tanning options. That same year, we provide sprays of SPF 30 to protect attendees at the Governor’s Ball music festival in New York City.


Hawaii bans the sale of two chemical sunscreen ingredients — oxybenzone and octinoxate — in an effort to protect coral reefs. Small studies suggest these ingredients can affect coral’s ability to reproduce and even reduce its life span and immunity. Oxybenzone and octinoxate begin vanishing from sunscreens.


The FDA announces it will reevaluate the safety of every chemical sunscreen agent, citing a lack of data (not negative data) on how chronic exposure to sunscreen affects our bodies. In the meantime, with indisputable evidence that the sun causes cancer, we are applying religiously.

All products featured on Allure are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.

Read more stories on the importance of sunscreen: 

Now watch a video on 100 years of sun care: 

You can follow Allure on Instagram and Twitter, or subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on all things beauty.

You may also like

Comments are closed.