"Ultra violet rays bad. Lotion good."

The Short History Of Sunscreen


If you’re younger than about 45, chances are you’ve been raised on the terrifying notion that there’s a hole in the ozone layer above Australia. The barrier between us and the celestial inferno has always been a variety of squeezy tubes full of fragrant goo; the smell of the inside of mum’s beachbag. In chronological order, late twentieth-century beachbags contained: nothing at all, baby oil, Tanfastic, Coppertone, zinc oxide (file under ‘Paul Hogan’ and ‘terry towelling hat’), and Reef Oil (Coconut or Frangipani).

Reef Oil and Waxx-On wax were at opposite ends of the traction spectrum, but their combined use did deliver an overwhelming coconut hit. Then there was Bullfrog, named not for its amphibious qualities but for its tendency to make your eyes bulge in agony when the damn stuff found them. These days there’s no highs and lows: it’s all Guardian Chemists SPF 50+, and lately, a variety of spray-ons. Spray-ons are as boring as deodorants, although entertainingly, the makers of one popular brand of sunscreen recalled their spray-on products after a number of people caught fire after applying them.

The single-digit SPFs were the tanning equivalent of overproof Bundy. You pretty much had to ask for them under the counter. In the period of mid-range SPFs – let’s say from the Carroll and Curren World Titles through to about the rise of Slater – SPFs were all 15s and 8s. Devotees would put the 15 on the face but the 8 on the rack. This was around the time of the sunscreen spray-gun guy made his way onto the beach at Cavill Avenue, Surfers Paradise.

You’d think we’ve now entered a sober age of restraint with this sort of behaviour, but it’s a myth. There’s an Australian pharmacy chain that will – right now, today, in 2014 – sell you the SPF6 Reef Oil, so you can fry yourself like a dimmy. But wait: it comes in a gift pack with Vitamin E crème so you can try to repair the damage afterwards. Which is something akin to selling Camel Filters with an oxygen mask.

The US Government’s number one expert on this stuff, by the way, is a guy named Reynold Tan. Seriously. Coppertone was invented by the Americans during the second world war. Their billboards featured a little girl being dacked by a black cocker spaniel. Jodie Foster made her acting debut as a three-year-old in a Coppertone ad, the tagline of which read: “Beautiful tan today, young-looking skin tomorrow.” It’s an oxymoron and a blatant lie, but it does have a little more joie de vivre than “Tanning is skin cells in trauma”.

The use of zinc remains most prevalent among cricketers and surfers. Down through the decades, these two cultures have fought an unceasing fashion battle over the stuff, while no-one else buys it at all. Picture Dean Jones with the white bottom lip; Tom Carroll’s careful stripe across the bridge of his nose and cheekbones; Andrew Symons with both whitened lips forming a startled ‘O’ in the slo-mo replay; Mick Fanning completely ghosted-out in the tropics; and Shane Warne trying to be cute with a little button of white on the end of his nose.

Sunscreen could save your life. And lack of variety should never be an excuse for failing to smear the gear. There’s an American website – of course there is – selling bacon-scented sunscreen.

Jock Serong