As a teenage lifeguard, Nathalie Turner spent more time working on her tan than she did worrying about her skin. “Sun protection wasn’t promoted—suntanning was,” the 40-year-old Seattle resident says of the attitude back then. Now she’s finally starting to think about the consequences. “I worry about skin cancer because of my fair skin and my early years in the sun.”
Many of us are guilty of taking a blasé approach to skin care at one point or another, but the truth is that sun exposure can lead to serious health issues, including skin cancer. Melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer) is the leading cancer killer of women between the ages of 25 and 30, according to the Melanoma Center.
The Pacific Northwest’s cloudy, overcast weather doesn’t offer a reprieve either. Washington had the eighth and 13th highest rates, respectively, for melanoma diagnoses and deaths in women when compared to other states.
“I find that some of my patients do seek out the sun at times because they feel deprived of the sun for much of the year,” says Dr. Sasha Kramer, president of the Washington State Dermatology Association. “I try and educate them that there is no such thing as a healthy tan and that a suntan actually represents damage to skin cells.”
Education, it turns out, is key. While the Food and Drug Administration has created new sunscreen labeling guidelines to set specific standards for water-resistance and sun-protection claims, it’s still up to the consumer to use the required amount.
“On average, Americans apply only a third as much sunscreen as the government thinks we do when they determine protective levels,” says Dr. Paul Nghiem, a dermatology professor and researcher at the University of Washington.
Besides applying, reapplying, and reapplying some more, you can boost your protection by choosing sunscreens with physical blockers, such as zinc oxide, which absorb light or deflect it away from the skin. There are also more appealing—and therefore more likely to be used—options out there, including sunblock powders and tinted lotions.
Other new, inventive ways to combat skin cancer are being researched in the lab. Nghiem has discovered that caffeine—the favorite drug of the Northwest—appears to kill precancerous or early-cancer cells. It’s most effective when cell damage first begins, so drinking a coffee while you lounge on the beach might not be a bad idea.
Other than guzzling that latte, your best defense for now is covering up in the sun, knowing what skin cancer looks like, and consulting a professional on a regular basis. “If you have a family history, you should start younger, just like people with breast cancer in their families,” says Dr. Min-Wei Christine Lee, a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon in Walnut Creek, California.
She recommends that high-risk adults see a dermatologist every six months and that other adults—especially those with fair skin, light-colored eyes, and a history of sunburn—get checked annually.
Even if UV rays don’t lead to cancer, they can cause wrinkles, freckles, and blotches. “The more sun damage you’ve had, the faster you will age,” Lee says. “Even if you’re just sitting in your car, you get sun damage.”
Casey Kennedy often heads outside to watch her son play sports and has already started to see cosmetic effects. “My skin is starting to crepe in the areas where it was exposed to the sun all my life—arms, ankles, face a wee bit,” the Bellevue resident says. “I don’t have creping on other areas, so it’s obvious that the sun was the culprit.”
Luckily, there’s a multitude of ways to combat everything from crow’s-feet to age spots. “As a baseline, women should use sunblock, a topical retinoid which regenerates the skin, and topical vitamin C, which is an antioxidant and decreases free radicals from sun exposure,” says Dr. Hayes B. Gladstone, a dermatologist at the Berman Gladstone Skin Institute in the San Francisco area.
Discoloration can also be treated with noninvasive laser or light therapy, sometimes combined with a topical chemical treatment. More in-depth treatments—laser resurfacing or chemical peels—handle both blotches and wrinkles, but they also increase skin sensitivity and require patients to stay out of the sun.
Other less intensive options include anti-aging creams with a hydroquinone-based bleaching agent. For former lifeguard Turner, the advice is plain and simple: “Wear sunscreen religiously, even in winter!”