Abstract: Covering Up the Coppertone Girl: The Medical Transformation of the Sun Care Product Industry in Twentieth-Century America

Sally Romano


In 1994, after forty years of gracing billboards across America wearing only shorts, playfully tugged down by a tag-along puppy, advertising icon "little miss Coppertone" donned a shirt, hat, and sunglasses for the first time. This new look reflected a deeper transformation within the sun care product industry. Sun care products—defined as any preparation intended to alter the effects of the sun's rays on the skin—were first known as "suntan lotions." In the 1950s and 1960s, these products targeted beach-going Americans in search of a golden tan. By the 1970s, driven by concerns about the depletion of the ozone layer and the resultant increase in Americans' exposure to carcinogenic ultraviolet light, skin cancer prevention emerged as a national health issue. Astute sun care product companies recognized this opportunity, and began to develop a new product. By adding greater amounts of ultraviolet light-absorbing chemicals to suntan lotions, they created the skin-protecting sunscreen. In 1978 the FDA strengthened these claims of "protection," endorsing a product label which claimed that sunscreen could prevent skin cancer. Over the next two decades the skin-cancer preventing sunscreen came to dominate the sun care product market. Physicians, government regulatory authorities, advertising and marketing strategists, and consumers all participated in this transformation.