Skin cancer danger in Washington: Why sunscreen matters

Nolan Scott plays in the sand Wednesday at Steel Lake Park. A record high of 90 degrees was set July 7 at Sea-Tac airport, breaking the old record of 88 degrees set in 1953. - Katie Adams, The Mirror
Nolan Scott plays in the sand Wednesday at Steel Lake Park. A record high of 90 degrees was set July 7 at Sea-Tac airport, breaking the old record of 88 degrees set in 1953.
— image credit: Katie Adams, The Mirror

If last week's heat wave taught us anything, it's that even in the mild Pacific Northwest, the sun can come out in full force.

This illustrates the importance of wearing sunscreen.

"They think they are protected by the clouds, especially in the Northwest," said Dr. Todd Willcox with Franciscan Health System, which includes St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way. "Clouds only filter out 20 percent of UV radiation. People get significant exposure even on a cloudy day."

Exposure to the sun can lead to sun damage, including premature aging and skin cancer.

According to WebMD, a sunburn is skin damage from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most sunburns cause mild pain and redness, but affect only the outer layer of skin (first-degree burn). The red skin might hurt when you touch it. Skin that is red and painful, with swelling and blisters, may mean that deep skin layers and nerve endings have been damaged (second-degree burn). This type of sunburn is usually more painful and takes longer to heal.

Even a tan is a sign of some damage. UVA radiation makes people tan. UVA rays penetrate to the lower layers of the epidermis, where they trigger cells called melanocytes to produce melanin. Melanin is the brown pigment that causes tanning. Melanin is the body's way of protecting skin from burning.

Skin cancer

Skin cancer is more predominant in people with paler skin, Willcox said. Even those with medium-tone skin, who tan easily, should wear sunscreen.

Sunscreen needs to be applied at least 30 minutes before exposure. Once applied, sunscreen lasts about two hours.

"People get a false sense of security," Willcox said. "It needs to be reapplied frequently."

Women may feel protected by the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) in their makeup. However, that little bit of protection is not enough.

"Usually they need seven times the amount they (get from the cream)," Wilcox said. "They should use another sunscreen in addition to that."

Kids especially need to be protected. Wilcox said that skin cancer rates in adults stem from excessive exposure to sun during their teenage years.

For the best protection, Willcox said to look for high quality broad spectrum SPF sunscreens with both UVA and UVB protection from ultraviolet rays. There are also sunscreens provided by doctors that are not as greasy as the store-bought variety.

There are treatment options for people with too much sun exposure in their lifetime. Almost all skin cancers can be surgically removed. Wilcox, who specializes in plastic and reconstructive surgery, also treats the cosmetic issues related to sun damage. About 25-30 percent of his cases have issues related to sun damage.

"It's a pretty frequent thing to see in a cosmetic practice," he said.

Learn more

Click here to learn more about skin cancer symptoms.

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