Sunny Days

What's the Best Sunscreen to Get for Seattle Weather?

A Virginia Mason dermatologist makes the case for sunblock every day of the year.

By Angela Cabotaje

Seattle summers are the best—adverse weather events and wildfires notwithstanding. They're why we stay out for hours on end, giving our oppressed knees time to luxuriate in the warm air and sunshine until a gloriously late sunset. Turns out we're kind of doing it wrong.

Washington has a surprisingly high rate of melanoma cases—the most serious type of skin cancer—compared to other states. In 2019, we ranked 11th for new instances of melanoma, beating out perpetually sunny states like Arizona, Hawaii, Florida, California, and Texas. 

"People in the Pacific Northwest are more likely to get intermittent, intense exposure to sun, so thinking about that first sunny day in May or June when you go out and get a sunburn or that occasional vacation to Palm Springs or Hawaii," explains Dr. Natalie Moriarty, a dermatologist at Virginia Mason Medical Center. "That intense, intermittent sun can actually lead to more skin cancers than chronic low-grade exposure, like someone might have who lives further south."

Even our nine-plus months of cloud cover can't save us from three months of overdoing it. "Seattle has a lot of cloudy days, but the fact is that a lot of UV light is still making it through the clouds," Moriarty says. (Anything above a three on a UV index means there's harmful UV light coming down.)

Sun-starved Seattleites, there's hope. Just slather on the sunscreen, Moriarty says (she is a dermatologist after all). Numerous studies show that regular sunscreen use can help prevent melanoma. Bonus: It'll also decrease signs of aging, like wrinkles and age spots.

What SPF should you get?

SPF, short for "sun protection factor," is basically a measure of how much UV light is being filtered out by a sunscreen. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of the sun's rays, SPF 100 blocks 99 percent, you get the idea.

For everyday use in the Seattle area, Moriarty says anything from SPF 30 and up works great. If you're planning to be outside on the water, snow, or at altitude for a lengthy amount of time, go for SPF 50 and up.

What about sunscreen for kids and babies?

Kids can follow the same SPF guidelines as adults. The only exception is newborns and babies younger than six months. "Babies under six months should be kept in the shade," Moriarty says. "No sunscreen for those little ones except as a total last resort." 

Spray or lotion?

Moriarty notes that there are some concerns about the ingredients found in sunscreen sprays, so she recommends lotions. That said, "any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen at all."

Chemical or mineral-blocking?

There's been much ado about oxybenzone, a chemical used in some sunscreens to absorb UV light. The Food and Drug Administration asked sunscreen manufacturers to provide safety data on this particular ingredient along with several others, but more research is needed to make a determination on whether it's actually dangerous.

For now, Moriarty recommends mineral-blocking sunscreens that contain zinc or titanium. These types of sunscreens sit on top of the skin and, in recent years, have advanced in the wearability department beyond that old-school white sheen.

When and how often do you need to apply?

It's best to put on sunscreen at least 20 minutes before you head outside. On an ordinary day, reapply every 90 minutes. If you're sweating or swimming, put on another coat after an hour.

Sunscreen-laced makeup works fine too, Moriarty notes, but the reapplication part is still key.

Could a hat suffice?

Yep, sunscreen is just one form of sun protection. Wide-brimmed hats, lightweight long-sleeve shirts, and shade are other effective methods.

Just in case, what does melanoma look like?

"It looks like a funny mole," Moriarty says. That's anything larger than around five millimeters, dark in color, and asymmetric with irregular edges. 

Other types of skin cancer, like squamous cell or basal cell, look like red bumps or sores. These types of skin cancers are 25 times more common than melanoma. But if you're diligently applying sunscreen, Moriarty notes, you'll hopefully never have to see them firsthand.

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