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To limit sun exposure, all you used to need to know was a sunscreen's sun protection factor (SPF).

Not anymore, say an environmental watchdog group and a natural products retailer.

The SPF number tells the level of protection from ultraviolet rays that can cause sunburn and, potentially, skin cancer. Exposure to UVA and UVB rays affect skin differently, but both can be hazardous.

SPF ranges from 15 to 100. Mindy Krsak, nurse practitioner at Marram Health Center in Gary, says people with a lighter tone skin should use an SPF of at least 30. If the skin tone is very fair, the SPF should be 50 or above.

Krsak says the most common sunscreens provide UVA and UVB protection and contain benzophenones and oxybenzone. It's those chemicals, plus octocrylene and octinoxate, that pose hazards, according to the Environmental Working Group. The group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Its web site, ewg.org, offers a full discussion of the risks posed by certain chemicals in many sunscreens. It includes a small study by the Food and Drug Administration indicating that chemicals, oxybenzone in particular, may disrupt human’s hormone patterns.

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With this knowledge, the Hawaii Legislature in May 2018 passed a law, which will go into effect in 2021, to ban sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, chemicals also linked to the bleaching of coral and death of reefs. In February, Key West, Florida, voted to ban the sale of the same chemicals, also beginning in 2021.

“A lot of sunscreens contain some pretty nasty chemicals, toxic ingredients with free-radical generators and endocrine disruptors,” says Janet Sirota, general manager at Baums Natural Foods in Merrillville.

To avoid these, Sirota recommends sunscreens containing mineral zinc oxides as the only active ingredient. Such brands at Baums include Alba Botanica, JASON and Badger, which are all on the EWG's list of products that provide broad-spectrum protection with nontoxic ingredients.

“Mineral zinc oxide is safe for the whole family, with different SPF levels and a children’s formula. They work just as well as (other sunscreens),” Sirota says. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that no sunscreen is approved for babies younger than 6 months.

As for the SPF, the EWG recommends products with SPF of 30 to 50; anything greater than SPF offers negligible additional protection. When used correctly, sunscreen with SPF values in the range of 30 to 50 will offer adequate sunburn protection, even for the most sensitive people.

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