zinc oxide

Surfing's original sunscreen, used as protection against sunburn and skin cancer. Chalk-colored zinc oxide products, with the shiny bluish-white zinc metal mixed into a wax- or petroleum-based ointment or cream, were first used in Europe in the early 20th century as a balm for irritated skin. In the late 1950s, lifeguards in Australia began rubbing ultraviolet-ray-blocking zinc oxide onto their lips, noses, and cheeks in what looked like a kind of ritual tribal war painting; American lifeguards soon followed. Surfers of the period often did all they could to distance themselves from lifeguards, but this was one thing the two groups agreed on.

Unlike "organic product" suncreens that absorb skin-damaging UV light, zinc oxide (along with titanium dioxide) works by both reflecting and absorbing UV. Zinc oxide, furthermore, doesn't break down with exposure to sunlight. It is, however, a giant hassle to remove.

Flesh-toned zinc oxide was introduced in 1970, and the mid-'80s saw a short-lived fad as the product was again reintroduced, this time in fluorescent greens, yellows, and pinks; Zinka was the most popular brand.

Dozens of alternative sunblock products have been introduced over the decades, but many surfers have stuck with zinc-blends. "It's one of the most important things in a grommet's life," freckle-faced Australian pro surfer Shane Herring said in 1994. "If there wasn't zinc I'd be noseless by now. And earless."

In the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, surfer-stoner Jeff Spicolli, played by Sean Penn, is appropriately zinc-covered in a dream sequence where he's interviewed after winning the big surf contest.