The Science Behind Sunscreen and How to Choose the Right One

SACRAMENTO -- Spending a full day in the blazing summer sun is an occupational hazard of being a lifeguard. But Sarah Colson, lifeguard manager at McClatchy Pool in Oak Park, says there’s one thing that makes it bearable -- sunscreen.

“It’s part of our uniform, actually,” Colson said. “So when our lifeguards come in every day, they have to put on their yellow shirts, their lifeguard shorts, their pocket masks, and apply sunscreen.”

Colson’s lifeguard team uses sunscreen provided by the city of Sacramento. But for the average person shopping for skin protection, with hundreds of varieties for sale, it can be tough to tell which type is best.

“We find something we like, and we kind of stick to it after a while,” Claudia Rodriguez told FOX40.

Rodriguez and her family use sunscreen every time they visit Folsom Lake. She said, as a mom, the most important part about shopping for sunscreen is finding one her kids will want to wear. They love Sun Bum sunscreen, for one simple reason.

“It smells like coconuts and bananas,” Claudia’s daughter, Victoria, said.

But the science behind the sunscreen is a little less obvious. With a long list of ingredients, it can be hard to tell exactly what is going onto your skin.

“The problem is, there’ a lot of misinformation out there,” said Dr. Emil Tanghetti.

Dr. Tanghetti is a dermatologist, and a skin cancer survivor. He says, most sunscreens fall into one of two types- “mineral” sunscreens, with ingredients like zinc oxide, that physically block the sun from the skin. Mineral sunscreens tend to make the skin look white, and chalky. There’s also “chemical” sunscreens, with ingredients like avobenzone and oxybenzone, that absorb the sun’s rays. But conflicting studies disagree on which type of sunscreen is safest for skin.

A recent study published by the Environmental Working Group tested more than 1,000 sunscreen products. They found nearly 75 percent of sunscreens contain ingredients they call “worrisome.” EWG researchers say oxybenzone can disrupt hormones, and avobenzone can irritate the skin. The group recommends avoiding chemical sunscreens, and only using mineral sunscreens. But a recent study by Consumer Reports had opposite findings. Looking at more than 60 sunscreens, they found chemical sunscreens are better at protecting the skin. They recommend avoiding mineral sunscreens.

“It’s often a game,” said Dr. Tanghetti. “There’s no standardization, there’s no one company that tests these. So a bit of this is subjective, and they are kind of putting their own spin on it.”

Dr. Tanghetti admits that some of his patients have found chemical sunscreens irritating to the skin. But he says overall, there’s no evidence that one type of sunscreen is more effective than the other. He recommends, instead of thinking about a sunscreen’s active ingredients, shoppers should be paying attention to SPF, or “sun protection factor.”

“You want to look for a sunscreen that’s at least a protection factor of 30 or more, that’s water resistant,” Dr. Tanghetti told FOX40.

According to Dr. Tanghetti, anything lower than SPF 30 won’t protect against enough UV rays. You don’t need to spring for the expensive SPF 100 sunscreen, but make sure it is at least SPF 30. He also warns that if the product isn’t water resistant, it will come off too easily. That’s why he says to avoid only wearing moisturizers that contain sunscreen, instead of sunscreen itself.

“Because those things don’t stick around and do much, and you actually get deluded into thinking you’re protecting yourself,” said Dr. Tanghetti.

Applying sunscreen doesn’t take long, but it could have life-long effects. For the lifeguards at McClatchy Pool, it’s daily protection they can’t live without.

“It takes 30 seconds to apply sunscreen, and if that can help you prevent skin cancer, then it’s worth the 30 seconds,” Colson told FOX40.