Tool Users: Sun Protection

Posted on: June 24, 2022

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 78, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 78 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

[Photo] Courtesy of Science History Institute [Photo] Courtesy of Science History Institute

For early mountaineers, painful sunburns were commonplace—and so were improvised attempts to keep their skin from crisping. While climbing the Gran Paradiso in Italy, one of Edwin Lord Weeks' partners "suffered from sunburn to such a degree that his face was puffed out with water-blisters," Weeks recounted in an 1894 publication. "He had rubbed [his skin] with butter before starting, but far from impeding the action of the sun-glare, it seemed rather to increase its effect, so that he became a sorry spectacle on the following day."

For thousands of years, cultures around the globe developed different techniques for trying to avoid sunburn, ranging from heavy, opaque clothing to parasols to plant- and mineral-based pastes and oils. In the nineteenth century, Western scientists were divided about whether the problem was caused by the sun's heat, by its light, or by other rays invisible to the human eye, such as ultraviolet radiation, which was identified in 1801.


As part of their research, some scientists and doctors turned to a community with plenty of experience getting burned: alpinists, who had tried numerous preventative tactics, including veils, grease paint and burnt cork. Some of these substances might have helped—the soot from burnt cork might have been opaque enough to be a physical barrier to ultraviolet rays—but others could only soothe the drying and blistering of a burn after it happened. When one British doctor and avid climber, Robert L. Bowles, contributed an article on sunburn in the Alps to the Alpine Journal in 1888, he related many incidents he'd observed over the years, noting the local weather conditions at each occurrence. Based on these anecdotes, he concluded that the sun's ultraviolet rays, reflected off snow, were particularly likely to sear the skin. Bowles' report circulated among climbers and medical researchers alike, and it was cited in publications such as the British Journal of Dermatology.

In 1894 Italian physiologist Angelo Mosso dragged a few colleagues (and a group of soldiers who volunteered to be test subjects) to a hut built by the Italian Alpine Club near the summit of Monte Rosa. There, Mosso carried out numerous experiments to study the effects of altitude on the human body and to test sunburn prevention methods. As he reported later, he slathered turmeric, red ochre, black lead, soot and Vaseline on his test subjects, sometimes smearing multiple treatments on different sections of one man's face. These activities kept the scientists "in a cheerful mood and proved a great source of merriment to the mountaineering parties with whom we came into contact," Mosso wrote in his book Life of Man on the High Alps. As others had, Mosso concluded that burnt cork was more effective than other substances, and he noted that "mountaineers in Chamonix have this year tested my method and found it very useful."

By the early twentieth century, more scientists and manufacturers were experimenting with formulas that could protect the skin while being (at least slightly) less messy than burnt cork or grease paint. These included lotions with chemical filters to absorb ultraviolet rays (sunscreens) and those with ingredients that physically blocked radiation (sunblocks). Mountaineers traded recommendations for these products, nicknamed "glacier creams." Franz Greiter, an Austrian chemist and avid climber, is often credited with creating one of the first purpose-made, mass-manufactured forms of chemical sun protection in the late 1940s. While running a cosmetics company that he started with his wife, Marga, he formulated a glacier cream with chemical UV filters. He called it "Piz Buin," after a mountain he'd climbed multiple times on the Swiss-Austrian border. In addition, Greiter helped introduce a system for measuring the protective factor of his products, now known as SPF (sun protection factor).

Sunscreen produced by the Piz Buin brand is still available today. Other companies also began making sun protection lotions and creams in the mid-twentieth century, some of which are still around (L'Oreal, Coppertone) and some of which aren't (Ray-Nox). Current sunscreens and sunblocks have come a long way from the heavy, pasty formulas of prior decades—and they are much less conspicuous on the skin than burnt cork and turmeric once were. Still, the best form of sun protection will always be the one you actually remember to use.

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 78, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 78 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.