Suntan lotion, or sunscreen as the industry has manipulated the public into calling it as the evidence piles up that a bronzed epidermis in your teens equates to looking like you’re fifty on your thirtieth birthday, has actually been around only a little longer than the bikini, the item of apparel for which it seems to have been targeted. It would make sense that the invention of suntan lotion, or sunscreen, would have coincided with the introduction of the skimpy bathing suit named after the Bikini Atoll, but alas that isn’t the case. While it is true that most swimsuits prior to the testing of the nuclear bomb on that tiny stretch of land in the midst of a huge ocean hardly required that wearers protect much skin from the harmful effects of the sun, suntan lotion was not specifically invented for use by bathing beauties, but rather for American soldiers fighting World War II in the Pacific theater. Despite that image of Burt Lancaster showing off his muscular physique while wearing only a scandalously short swimsuit as waves interrupt his passionate kiss with Deborah Kerr, the fact is the idea of going to beach and letting the sun bake one’s exposed skin for hours on end was not a common activity back then.
A dark tan was not undesirable prior to the invention of suntan oil due to health reasons; rather it was a cultural thing. That shouldn’t be taken in reference to racism; it wasn’t the fear of being thought a negro that kept people out of the sun. The fact is that for most of history the only people whose skin grew darker during the summer were those forced to work outside. To have a dark tan was a sign of being a member of the lower class. Pale white skin was the epitome of beauty not for racist reasons, but because if you had white skin even during the dog days of summer that meant you weren’t forced to work outdoors. There is another cultural reason why tanning lotion was not invented earlier. The simple fact is that most of the population of America didn’t live near a beach. And economic and transportation factors precluded those who did live relatively close from making the trip on any but special occasions. The beach was simply not the mecca of weekend travel that it is today. Another thing is that when somebody emerged from the water they wouldn’t stretch out an oversized towel and lie on the sand; they would sit beneath an enormous sun umbrella. Suntan lotion was simply not a necessity and once upon a time inventors and marketers only created products that people actually needed. (That’s true; I’m not making it up.)
Then along came those Jap zeroes over Pearl Harbor and thousands of young men shipped off to exotic places in a foreign land. Or, a foreign sea. Those American soldiers fighting on Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal and everywhere else in the Pacific Ocean were finding themselves subject to incredibly painful sunburns and there weren’t any enormous umbrellas to hide under on the deck of an air craft carrier. As is so often the case, it was war that brought about innovation. The US government put its scientists to work developing some kind of cream that could be applied to the skin to protect it from the harmful rays of the sun. One product that arrived early in this process was red petrolatum, which as the name implies is a petroleum by-product. It worked well enough, but it left reddish residue on the skin. Ultimately the best product to come out of this meeting of military and scientific minds came from a doctor named Ben Green. It was allegedly Green himself who foresaw that this product had potential in the commercial market after the war. Green saw to it that his suntan lotion was marketed to the public after the war and he applied a more pleasant scent to the oil; a scent that instantly brings back memories to anyone who grew up going to the beach from the 50s through the 70s. This new lotion not only had a very pleasing smell to it, but when applied the skin, instead of burning red, would darken to a sort of copper-colored hue. It was not long before women in increasingly skimpy swimsuits were being chased by men on the beaches of America while smelling of Coppertone.