Two women apply sunscreen
A claim that skin cancer didn't exist before sunscreen ignores the very long history of the disease. Image by AP PHOTO

Bizarre skin cancer claim forgets to apply history

William Summers January 19, 2024

Skin cancer didn’t exist before sunscreen.


False. Melanoma has been documented for thousands of years. Chemical sunscreen was invented in the 1890s and commercialised in the 1940s.

A former NSW upper house candidate with a history of spreading misinformation has made a bizarre claim that skin cancer didn’t exist before people started putting sunscreen on their children.

The claim is false. Descriptions of human skin cancers have been documented for thousands of years. Medical definitions of the disease go back to the early 1800s. 

Chemical sunscreen was invented in the 1890s and commercialised in the 1940s and studies have found that regular sunscreen use is associated with a reduced risk of skin cancer (see examples here, here and here).

The claim was made in a video posted to Facebook by David Graham, an  Australian conspiracy theorist (see here, here and here) who refers to himself by the nickname ‘Guru’.

Facebook screenshot
 A former NSW parliament candidate claims skin cancer didn’t occur before public sunscreen campaigns. 

In 2023, Mr Graham stood in NSW’s state election, picking up 31 first preference votes as an ungrouped candidate.

“Go and research when skin cancer started,” Mr Graham says in the January 8 video (14mins 3secs). 

“Right when we started to get our minds f****d by the government to put sunscreen on our kids. That’s when skin cancer started. Research it.”

Anybody taking up Mr Graham’s invitation to research when skin cancer started will find the disease was prevalent well before modern sunscreens or government campaigns promoting them. 

In 2021, US-based dermatologists at Baylor Scott & White Health and Texas A&M Health Science Center published a journal article featuring a timeline of the history of sunscreen.

According to those researchers, humans have tried different types of skin protection for thousands of years. 

However, the invention of chemical sunscreen is credited to a German doctor, Friedrich Hammer, in 1891.

The first modern, commercial sunscreen was developed in the 1940s by a Swiss chemist called Franz Greiter, who developed the product after reportedly being sunburned while mountain climbing in 1938.

Australian governments have actively promoted the use of sunscreen for more than 40 years, including through the iconic ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ campaign that first aired in the summer of 1980-81.

Sid the Seagull
 Sid the Seagull was star of the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ campaign launched by the Cancer Council in 1981. 

Incidence of various cancers, including skin cancer, was documented by ancient Egyptians as far back as around 3000 BC. Descriptions of melanoma tumours – the most dangerous form of skin cancer – later appeared in the writings of ancient Greek physician Hippocrates in the fifth century BC.

European medical literature included descriptions of skin melanoma from the 17th century onward and it was recognised as a distinct disease in 1804. 

Professor Adele Green, senior cancer scientist at Brisbane’s QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, said melanoma rates increased throughout the second half of the 20th century.

However the increase was due to behavioural changes, not sunscreen use, she said. 

“Melanoma incidence rates in white-skinned populations rose worldwide rapidly from the 1950s following the societal swings in attitudes to clothing cover (towards decreasing) and to tanned skin (towards widespread approval),” Prof Green told AAP FactCheck in an email.

Researchers also found that indoor tanning beds, popularised in the 1970s, increased the risk of melanoma for those who used them.

Additionally, Prof Green said that historically, sunscreen was far less effective at preventing sunburn than it is now. 

“In the early 1980s in Europe, the average SPF was 4 to 6. By the late 1990s, it was 15+.

“Today, sunscreens with SPF 30+ to 50+ are promoted to prevent skin cancer in the long-term, as well as acute sunburn.”

In Australia, the age-standardised (adjusted for age-related differences) mortality rate from melanoma steadily grew from 1971 (3.4 deaths per 100,000 people) through to 2011 (6.2 deaths per 100,000 people), according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) figures.

However, the death rate has fallen since 2011 and stood at 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, the most recent year for which AIHW figures are available. 

AAP FactCheck has previously debunked misleading claims that sunscreen ingredients include cancer-causing chemicals. 

The Verdict

The claim that skin cancer did not exist before sunscreen is false. 

Descriptions of skin cancers go back thousands of years. 

Chemical sunscreen was invented in the 1890s and commercialised in the 1940s.

False — The claim is inaccurate.

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