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What is Sun Cream?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 21, 2024
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Sun cream is a topical product that protects from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun. Applied to the surface of the body, sun cream has been a popular product since the mid-1900s as the chief protection from sunburn and other negative consequences of the sun’s radiation. The product comes in many forms and brands and in spray, gel, and lotion types, and is also known as suntan lotion or sunblock. With three main types of protection, sun cream is an essential product for many exposed to midday sun for long periods, and is most commonly seen on summer beaches.

From small tubes or spray bottles, sun cream is supposed to be distributed over the exposed body evenly. A dosage of cream around the size of a quarter could reasonably coat the average adult with enough sun cream to cover exposed areas. Many normal sun creams should be applied every two or three hours for maximum effectiveness, and should be reapplied after swimming or getting wet. In the 2000s, modern sun creams have been developed to resist water and sweat.

Sun cream first emerged as a popular preventive method against sunburn in the 1930s, when Franz Greiter developed the first sun cream lotion, which later became the original Piz Buin product and product line. Twenty-two years after developing the first primitive creams, Greiter was responsible for the concept behind what is today known as SPF, or Sun Protection Factor. The SPF guide was established to measure the strength and effectiveness of different sun creams with different skin types. The SPF helped to determine the amount of cream needed and the level of protection offered.

More recently, sun cream has emerged as a popular product for a culture obsessed with suntans. With the growing risk of skin cancer, sun cream has become an essential product across the United States, though it has not become as prevalent across Europe. Sun cream has been proven to combine organic compounds to absorb UV rays above the skin; reflect and scatter UV light on the surface; or do a combination of the two through organic and inorganic particulates.

Recommended by the American Cancer Society, sun creams come in various variations, including anti-wrinkle creams. Though the major purpose of sun creams are to protect from the sun, some creams have been developed to protect the skin while using the rays of the sun to enhance a tan at the same time. These creams are not to be confused with tanning lotions or creams, which do not protect from the sun.

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Discussion Comments
By CarrotIsland — On Jan 11, 2011

@alex94: Well, it depends on what the SPF is in your tanning lotion. Most tanning lotions have a SPF that varies from 5 to about 15. This means that the protection for your skin is very low. However, there is a small amount of sun cream in there for protection.

In all honesty, since the SPF is so low, it really doesn’t do any good. There isn't much SPF in your tanning lotion because the higher the SPF the less of a tan you get. My suggestion to you is to apply a sun cream with a high SPF first then apply your tanning oil because healthy skin is more important than a good tan.

By alex94 — On Jan 09, 2011

I’ve noticed on my tanning oil bottle that the SPF is very low. Does this mean that my skin isn’t protected? Is there even any sunscreen in my tanning lotion?

By WaterHopper — On Jan 07, 2011

@gardenturtle: First of all, SPF stands for Sunburn Protection Factor. I can’t stress the importance enough. The SPF is very significant because it determines how well your skin is protected. The higher the SPF, the better the protection will be. For example, children’s skin is a lot more sensitive than adult’s skin, so children’s sun screen will always have a higher SPF to keep their skin protected longer. I strongly suggest you purchase the sun cream with a higher SPF to protect your skin better.

By GardenTurtle — On Jan 06, 2011

I’ve bought several different types of sun cream recently and I’ve noticed that the SPF on each of them is different. I was wondering, what does this mean and is it important for me to notice while purchasing sun cream?

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