Why does sunscreen smell like that?

For me, the thought of summer always cues the feeling of sand between my toes, the taste of fresh watermelon, and the scent of sunscreen.

But why does sunscreen smell like that?

People have been getting sunburnt since the ancient times. Ancient Greek documentation even mentions the use of sun-shielding clothing and veils to try to prevent this. After all, this was the society where Helen’s fair skin launched a thousand ships...avoiding a tan was highly prized.

Unsurprisingly, some ancient civilizations developed their own sunscreen. For instance, the ancient Egyptians used a combination of aloe vera, calcite, clay, and herbs as their sun protection. Of course, this smelled nothing like our current sunscreens!

The sunscreen that we are accustomed to originates from a few inventors in the 1930s and 1940s. Firstly, in 1936, Hamilton Blake, a South Australian chemist, made a sunburn cream; it was refined by chemist Eugene Schueller, future founder of L’Oreal, and hit the market that year. In parallel, hiker and chemistry student Franz Greiter was sunburnt while climbing Mount Piz Buin, inspiring him to develop the first generation of the Piz Buin sunscreen that we know today.

But the man who can be most credited with the sunscreen scent that we know today is US military airman Benjamin Green, who developed a petroleum-based jelly to protect himself and his comrades while serving in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he improved the formulation with cocoa butter, coconut oil and a hint of jasmine. There was the original sunscreen scent!

And Green’s suncream became the original formula for Coppertone sunscreen, thereby spreading that scent of summer to millions of beachgoers.