What did people do before sunscreen?

What did people do before sunscreen?

So hopefully my last post gave you enough reason to at least reconsider slathering on sunscreen this summer.  I can tell you we won’t be using it at our house. (Well, to be honest, we haven’t used it for a couple of years now.) But unless you think I recommend ditching the toxins and just going out to bake, think again.

The truth is the sun can do a lot of damage.

Skin cancer is real. In our day and age we have to be conscious of that fact. Being careless about our exposure to the sun is probably not a good idea… especially if you tend to live the majority of your life indoors (and eat a Standard American Diet).

So what did people do before sunscreen?

Depends. Like diet, the approach to sun varied from people to people depending on culture and climate. But here are a few ideas that you can borrow from them to help protect your own skin:

Cover up.

This is the most effective, harmless way of protecting yourself from the sun. Light weight fabrics, hats, scarves… whatever helps keep your skin away from the sun’s rays. Remember to pay particular attention to your eyes as the skin around them is very delicate.

Get a tan.

The brown pigment melanin in the skin is a natural defense against UV radiation. When exposed to moderate levels of exposure (depending on skin type), a sun “tan” absorbs UV radiation through the melanin and dissipates the energy as harmless heat, blocking the UV from damaging skin tissue (1).

Of course with our sedentary and mostly-indoor lifestyle this can be a little tricky and takes some time to “build up a resistance.” You want to avoid a burn. But the great thing about this is that your body will also be able to synthesize the Vitamin D that is so essential for good health. In fact, I highly recommend checking out this article by Dr. Mercola on how to gradually build up your exposure to maximize your Vitamin D. He covers some important points and gives some tips and precautions.

Eat real food.

Also, like so many aspects of our health, our diet affects how easily we burn. By eating real food you can help protect your skin. It’s all connected, folks. (Want to learn what kinds of food help? Read this or this.)

There are also some homemade sunscreen recipes online using coconut oil. Just be careful, like the chemical stuff some people tend to think they are 100% covered if they put something on. You can still burn. Always monitor your sun usage.

What do we do?

For my family, we try to get some sun each day. If we know we’re going to be out for a long time we cover up. I also use a little coconut oil around my eyes and on the delicate skin on my face. We also take cod liver oil daily and eat lots of real food. Nobody has had a burn in my family for years and we are spending more time in the sun than we used to.

Keep in mind that the sun is really powerful, but it’s also a resource that can help us in our quest for health. Understanding our relationship with the earth and sun can provide more energy, vitality, and joy. Who doesn’t enjoy feeling the warmth of the sun? Let’s soak in the goodness and keep the toxic stuff away.

If you still can’t seem to “let go” of the idea of sunscreen….

Just in case I haven’t convinced you to get rid of your sunscreen, at least consider taking the time to research one that will do less damage. The Environment Working Group provides so many valuable resources on many products to help consumers choose the least toxic stuff out there. Check out their 2011 guide to sunscreens. There’s also a recipe for toxic-free sunscreen in my book Toxic Free.


So tell me… what are you thoughts on sunscreen? Do you use it? Are you reconsidering?


(top featured image by Seb.tec, Flickr)


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunscreen


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About the author

Hi! I'm and I’m passionate about healthy living: feeling nourished, having energy, getting good sleep, and feeling strong. I believe healthy living does not have to be complicated or stressful. I’m a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist (RSMT) and a Certified Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analyst (CLMA). I’m also an avid researcher and love to read about nutrition, the body, and toxic-free living. Learn more.

View all articles by Robin Konie


  1. Terry

    I grew up in Florida in the 60’s and 70’s; going to the beach all the time and swimming in our backyard pool (and on the swim team). Needless to say, I was out in the sun ALL. THE. TIME. I am also VERY fair–very light natural blonde, and so I got my “fair” share of burns, lol. My dad use to get on to me about spending so much time in the sun. When sunscreen started become more known, he would get on to me about using it. I’ve never really used it a lot, like they tell you too. I do use it some, and have put it on my kids very fair skin, but again, I don’t slather it on like they tell you too. I always thought of it as the sunscreen companies were trying to sell you more. I have also questioned whether it was good for you or not. I never remember anyone getting skin cancer when I was a beach bum. Yes, many of my friends had premature aging. I didn’t. I was lucky. I am 52, and am just now noticing age spots, but people still think I am at least ten years younger than I am. I am really glad to hear about this with sunscreen, and will be doing some more research.

    1. robin

      Thanks for stopping by, Terry! I’m amazed how many former “beach bums” have a similar story. I’ve been putting sunscreen on all my life (except for the past two or three years) and I still can point out places where I have sun damage despite all my diligent efforts to slather on the stuff like I was told. :)

    2. Cindy

      Thank you so much for explaining the negative affect on sunscreen. I seem to absorb the sun better in my older years and tan rather then burn. My grandchildren are all fair and I will try to incorporate the cod liver oil into their diets to keep the safe and healthy.

      1. Post author

        Thanks, Cindy! Keep in mind that if you’ll be out in the sun for a long time you still want to be protected. Wear a hat or long sleeves to be safe.

  2. Garrett

    I’ve never done much research on it, but I’ve wondered. I try to spend more time outside. After a rainy spring break in Washington, I went back to school with a tan and people were amazed. My impression has always been that burning is bad, but my intuition says that we need sun exposure is good. I haven’t burnt in years, but I also haven’t worn sunscreen in a long time. I think it is neat how the seasons naturally prepare your skin. In spring, days are shorter and the sun is less intense, so if you are outside it is almost difficult to burn, but you can easily build a tan if you spend enough time outside. THen you are ready for summer when things get more intense.

    Great blog, by the way, I’ve really enjoyed it.

    1. robin

      Thanks, Garrett. I also think it’s amazing how nature has a way of preparing us for so many things.

      Also, can I just tell you how excited I am for your farm!? Way to go, guys!

  3. Whitney

    I just found your blog through a friend. Interesting article. What are you thoughts on all natural sunscreens like Badger?

  4. Ashley

    Hey Robin!

    Interesting story: I never wear sunscreen. I’ve never trusted it. And I’ve never really gotten sunburnt (a little red just a few times in my life but only lasted for a day or two and never hurt)…..until……….. Last Summer I was outside at my brother-in-laws pool and everyone was putting on sunscreen and finally to get them to stop bugging me I put some on for them, not for me. 😛 And guess what? That’s the only time in my whole 22 years on this earth that I have gotten a true sunburn that peeled and everything! Kinda freaked me out….and therefore I will continue onward with my untrusting relationship with sunscreen. Never again will I give in to peer pressure like that!

    1. robin

      Wow, Ashley! That’s crazy. I’ve actually heard that too high of an SPF can make you burn, but it’s more of a chemical burn than a sun burn.

      Hope you are doing well, beautiful friend!

  5. cassia

    i really appreciate the inclusion of other sources for more material to read – it’s fascinating! the human body is so incredible. i’ve definitely been wary of sunscreen since learning more about the body and making my own choices for health (aka, living on my own). i love being outside, and somehow my son loves it more than i do – so we’ve gotta be prepared for everything. so far it’s just been easiest to stay covered up, getting a little exposure each day to build up the melanin levels (i think i phrased that funny – i need a nap haha). good read!

  6. Pingback: Sunscreen: Your best friend on a sunny day or cancer in a bottle?Thank Your Body

  7. Elizabeth

    I just found your blog via Our Nourishing Roots. What a great post. Thank you! I also have very fair skin and burned many times throughout my life. I was always careful about the sun, but I could literally get a bad burn after only 15-20 minutes, so I would slather on more and more sunscreen. And get burned again. It got to where I feared the sun. Then I had my daughter. Blond, blue-eyed and just as fair-skinned as me, during her first Summer she broke out with a rash on her skin. I thought it was due to our laundry detergent, etc. but couldn’t find a cause. It took me two more years to associate the sunscreen with her recurrent (Summer only) rash. I felt awful. I had been slathering this awful stuff on her in order to “protect” her, but I was really doing more harm than good. Fortunately, I found traditional foods about a year ago and we all started taking FCLO last year. This Spring I had noticed that I wasn’t burning (neither were either of my children) even though it had been unusually warm and we had spent more time outdoors in March and April that normal. A few weeks ago I discovered a post by Cheeseslave about how CLO and seafood can help prevent sunburn. Eureka! Our diet has made all of us much, much more resistant to sunburn. It still blows me away. Now I mindfully spend some time in the sun when I can. We live in Michigan, so we don’t get many sunny days.

    1. Post author

      I’m always amazed at the power of real food. So glad you found the cause of her problems. I know I often think about the things I used to do to “protect” me…

      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Samantha

    Great article! I always wondered about it. I very rarely wear it mainly because it makes my skin feel disgusting. Here’s a scary sunscreen story for you, a few years ago I got the spray sunscreen and after I put it on my kids I noticed my nail polish was coming off. I couldn’t figure out why that was happening until I put it on them again in the afternoon! The aerosol spray sunscreen took my nail polish off!!! That scared me, if it was taking nailpolish off what was it doing to my kids’s skin?!?!

    1. Post author

      Wow, Samantha! That is scary! I’m still amazed at how deep the “slather on this stuff” runs for so many people. Our skin is the largest organ of the body and it absorbs what we put on it. Yikes!

  9. Tracy Nault

    I grew up in SW Florida and spent most of my childhood at the beach or pool. I am very fair skinned and I remember having some pretty bad sunburns. A few years ago, I went to the dr. for a spot on my face and it was basal cell carcinoma. My sunscreen use had always been spotty at best and the dr. told me that was why I had skin cancer. So I began using my sunscreen religiously. I haven’t had any more cancers but I have noticed, lately, that my skin hurts and burns when I reapply the sunscreen after being outside for awhile. I am just so confused over the whole sunscreen thing. Like you, I question the safety of these chemicals that we are putting all over our bodies. I am outside quite a bit as we farm and I have been trying to lessen the use of sunscreen just to see if our whole foods diet that we are on now will help protect us. This is such a scary subject and I was glad to read that you have found the same things I did when I started researching. I truly believe that God made our bodies in such a way as to protect us from things like sun exposure (He didn’t supply Adam and Eve with Coppertone in the Garden of Eden now did He?!)but our American lifestyle and eating has torn down those wonderful built in protections He gave us. Sorry this is so long but I wanted to tell you thank you for posting on this subject!

    1. Post author

      I appreciate your comment so much! Skin cancer is real and scary… but like you said I just never understood how civilization (who LIVED in the sun) survived without sunscreen. I do think there are so many factors that can play into it: diet, pollution, chemicals, etc. I just think we need to all consider our options before slathering on stuff that’s been proven to cause cancer.

      There are are times when I do use sunscreen (although I am very picky about the brand. I use the EWG guide to pick one with the least amount of problems), but overall I think there are smarter ways to deal with the sun.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Audrey

    I am very fair skinned and live in the south. My dad had some pre-cancerous lesions removed from his forehead before he died (he was only 63 when he died). I can’t be in the sun for more than a few minutes before I burn. I’ve had a few burn and peels in my lifetime and I never want to go through that again. If I am going to be outside for a while, I wear long sleeves and get really hot. When we were in the Caribbean, I wore a long sleeve UPF shirt, but I did use sunscreen on my hands and face. I used Tropical Sands http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/product/437587/Tropical_Sands_Sunscreen%2C_SPF_50_/ which got a rating of 1 at ewg.org/skindeep. It worked very well. :)

    1. Post author

      Hi Audrey,

      Sounds like you found a good brand. That’s really the key. It’s still important to due what you need to if you have to be in the sun for a long time. We use sunscreen rarely (because we don’t spend long extended periods outdoors very often), but if I know I’m going to be outside for a long time I get a sunscreen with a good rating, too.

  11. Katherine @ Green Thickies

    I totally agree with you. I used to have a real sensitivity to the sun. I couldn’t go out in it for more than 5 minutes without getting sun stroke and I burned really easily, but after going on a raw food diet I could then tolerate sitting in the hot sun all day without any symptoms and not getting burned.

  12. Kathleen "S'mores" Murphy

    I am a fair person and had MANY blistering sunburns when I was growing up. I never was one to sit in the sun, and always wore sunscreen.
    In the past few years I have been trying to live a much more natural life. I don’t use shampoo, my beauty products now consist of only coconut oil and mascara (which is how I found your blog for the all natural homemade mascara! I would like to share that on my blog btw. Anyway, I hiked the Appalachian Trail a couple years ago, and I did end up getting a sunburn at the beginning. But then I noticed that the “dirtier” I got, the less I burned. I realized, I wasn’t washing my natural oils (sebum) off. I have continued to “bathe” in the same manner as I did on the Trail. Very rarely using soap, and when I do, its only in the important places (underarms and crotch). This past summer I did not use sunscreen once, and I did not burn at all! I was definitely out in the sun A LOT.
    I am currently a participant in the CPS-3 (3rd cancer prevention study) the same study that found that cigarettes cause cancer, and in the questionnaire it focused a lot on sunburns and sunscreen. Unfortunately there was no free-form space for me to share my findings.
    You might want to check out my blog entry on my other favorite popular poison http://nowwhatssheupto.blogspot.com/2012/10/wait-till-you-see-what-we-did-with-off.html

    1. Post author

      So interesting, Kathleen. Thanks for sharing. I love hearing all of your experiences here. I will definitely check out your blog. :)

  13. cred

    As a kid, I had a few too many burns- very fair and no sunscreen then just suntan lotion or oil- low spf, if any.
    Later as sunscreen was promoted, I avoided it b/c I hated the sticky feeling of it. And once I had my daughter, I didn’t use it on her b/c of the warning not to use on babies (can’t recall the age they suggest to start using) but I thought if it’s not safe for babies why is it safe for my toddler. I mostly kept her covered or short exposure. However, she isn’t fair like I am and we spend a lot of time outside. She builds up to a tan and it seems to offer protection. We avoid being outside between 2-4pm and it has served us well. My baby is now 13 yo and has only been burnt once while playing too long in the water without cover.
    We volunteer with at an organic farm, so once a week during growing season we are outside all day. However, we use hats and long sleeve, light-weight cotton shirts to cover.
    My son is fair like I am but we rarely burn even spending so much time outside. And we both get a tan, even though we are fairer than my daughter. I do think a tan offers protection, too.
    Knowing that vitamin D offers protection from cancer, I do like to get a healthy dose of natural D from the sun, without getting the burn.

  14. Caitlin

    Alright, I have a question. I’m 13 so I would like advice. I’m very VERY fair skinned. I’m a natural light blonde with blue eyes. If anyone else is lie, this then chances are you’re very fair skinned too and know what I’m talking about. My mom has always made me put on a LOT of sunscreen and even made me get out of the pool to reapply. I always burned anyway but not as bad as I would have with nothing on (I’ve compared them because many times when I wasn’t with her I would “forget” to put it on). I also had a scare a few years ago where if we hadn’t caught it in time, it could have turned into melanoma or skin cancer. She got even stricter with the sunscreen. Getting a tan is out of the question. No matter how hard I try I get (maybe) half a shade darker in the summer. Other than that, I freckle and burn. I have to have some kind of protection. I live in Mississippi and its too hot to cover up. If I can’t use sunscreen, what can I do?

  15. Caitlin

    Alright, I have a question. I’m 13 so I would like advice. I’m very VERY fair skinned. I’m a natural light blonde with blue eyes. If anyone else is lie, this then chances are you’re very fair skinned too and know what I’m talking about. My mom has always made me put on a LOT of sunscreen and even made me get out of the pool to reapply. I always burned anyway but not as bad as I would have with nothing on (I’ve compared them because many times when I wasn’t with her I would “forget” to put it on). I also had a scare a few years ago where if we hadn’t caught it in time, it could have turned into melanoma or skin cancer. She got even stricter with the sunscreen. Getting a tan is out of the question. No matter how hard I try I get (maybe) half a shade darker in the summer. Other than that, I freckle and burn. I have to have some kind of protection. I live in south Mississippi and its too hot to cover up. In fact, i try to wear as little as possible (while staying modest). its usually shorts and a tank top or my swimsuit.If I can’t use sunscreen, what can I do?

    1. Post author

      Hi Caitlin,

      I would check out the EWG’s sunscreen guide (I linked it in the article) and choose a sunscreen that has a high rating with them. Use that when you are out in direct sun. I’d also start taking fermented cod liver oil if you can… as it can help protect your skin from the inside out: http://thankyourbody.com/why-take-fermented-cod-liver-oil/

      You can also make your own sunscreen that is MUCH safer than most store bought. I have a recipe in my ebook, or you could probably find one online if you do a search.

      Good luck!

  16. Ashley H

    Glad Cheeseslave just posted the first article in this series on facebook, I’ve been wondering about the sun protective clothing. I’m assuming the fabrics that claim they have sun protection built in to them are using chemicals? Do you know anything about that? I know we can just use regular cotton clothing, I’m just thinking about all the cute little toddler sun shirts and wondering if they’re treated with something scary.

    1. Post author

      Someone else just asked me about this today. I haven’t looked much into, but will when I get a moment (which may be a few days, let’s be honest.) :) I generally trust cotton, hats, and other natural protections whenever possible.

    1. Post author

      I have. I can’t remember off the top of my head what natural spf is has… but I know it has some natural properties.

  17. Alexia Anderson

    Hi Robin!
    I’ve started to read your blog lately and have even tried out some of you beauty care recipes with great success. Now I do want to try making my own sunscreen, but I’m a little leery. I live in Denver, CO which is a exactly a mile above sea level and the UV Rays here are POWERFUL. I’ve never lived in a place where even my scalp gets burnt. So i’m just wondering how effective you think a homemade sunscreen will work here. I’m very fair skinned and I pretty much always cover up, but I’ve even come home with a small burn after wearing long sleeves. Any suggestions? Thanks!

    1. Post author

      I think homemade sunscreen can be very effective, but you’ll want to always watch your skin carefully, especially as you first start out. If it doesn’t seem to “do the job” check out the EWG’s sunscreen guide to find the safest sunscreen that you can use for days when you’ll be out a lot.

  18. Mara Rest

    Hi Robin, I enjoyed reading your very interesting article.
    I found out last summer that lavender essential oil has natural sun-blocking and anti-inflammatory properties. My husband was working outside in the sweltering sun without using anything and came home with a starting-to-blister sunburn. Put lavender essential oil (Young Livings medicinal-grade lavender oil) on and you could literally watch the skin heal. We then found out you can use it as a preventative and I have used lavender mixed with a carrier oil on us ever since, works great on even my light-skinned son. It is an awesome fact that lavender also has cancer-healing properties, is an anti-histamine and also anti anxiety. This is all we use for a sunscreen now. I heard Myrrh oil works similarly and was used by the ancient Egyptians as a sunscreen (mixed with some animal fat). Only genuine Myrrh is a lot more expensive. It is great though if you also want to treat other skin conditions like Vitilago.

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  22. k

    just found this article! thanks.
    as a lifelong hedonist, i have always felt a twinge of guilt when all the sunscreen pushers would tell me i was going to kill myself by sunbathing. the new research is so validating for me. i go by my grandma’s mantra, “i just FEEL better with a tan!” i have always tanned, never had much burning problem, and don’t have much sun damage to show for it. i wish more people knew this stuff. it always seemed absurd that God would park that big old sun up there for all the hours we’re awake if it were a deadly evil… :)

    1. Post author
      Robin Konie

      “it always seemed absurd that God would park that big old sun up there for all the hours we’re awake if it were a deadly evil… :)” Ha! So true.

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