Sun Smarts: The Delicate Balance of Enjoying — or Avoiding — the Sun

As temperatures heat up, learn how to protect your skin and identify the potentially harmful effects of exposure

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woman in running clothes running on pier with sun shining

Like anyone else who has endured a gray Pacific Northwest winter, Andrew Kroeker, MD, understands the desire to head outside to soak up the sun.

“We are so excited to see blue sky,” he says, “but it’s important to remember that sunscreen is critical at all times. Having not seen any sun for many months, sunburns are common.”

As physician lead of the Kaiser Permanente Northwest Skin Cancer Task Force, he should know. A large portion of his time is spent on surgeries dealing with skin cancer — 30 to 40 percent of which occur on the head and neck because of increased exposure to the sun.

Lifelong protection

Genetics, skin tone and family history play a role in skin cancer, but the bottom line is that lifelong protection from the sun is important for everyone.

“Statistically speaking, the older you are, the greater the chance you have of developing skin cancer,” he says. “This is why it is so important to protect kids from the sun and to continue that for the rest of their lives.”

There are two types of ultraviolet (or UV) light that affect the skin: UV-A and UV-B. UV-A incites a response that creates the “tanning” reaction, whereas UV-B is associated with the superficial “burning” reaction. Long-term effects of UV-A include accelerated aging of the skin, such as wrinkles and sagging. UV-B is associated with DNA damage that leads to skin cancers. “For this reason, it is important that the sunscreen we use has protections from both types of UV light,” advises Dr. Kroeker. “The label should tell you.”

The sun-safe balancing act

The desire to enjoy the sun while protecting yourself is a balancing act. Using a daily sunscreen can be incorporated into daily grooming and hygiene, “like brushing your teeth,” he suggests. “Use a daily moisturizer with at least 30 SPF and, once you start wearing short sleeves and shorts, move that SPF coverage to any exposed skin.”

Hats, sunglasses and clothing with SPF protection in the fabric are also valuable physical barriers. Again, it’s most important to cover exposed areas of the skin. Even skiers and snowboarders can get a nasty burn on a cold winter day.

Dr. Kroeker manages aggressive types of skin cancer, including melanoma, which has a relatively high incidence in the Northwest.

“Keep an eye on your skin, particularly moles.” To help with that, he recommends the classic acronym used to help evaluate potentially worrisome moles: ABCD.

A stands for ASYMMETRY: Round, regular appearing moles are less worrisome.

B stands for BORDER: Irregularity of the edges of the mole can indicate abnormalities.

C stands for COLOR: The darker the mole, the more worrisome it is.

D stands for DIAMETER: Greater than 6 millimeters is more problematic.