Washington state was the fifth highest in the nation for reported cases of melanoma during 2001-2005. Starting in December, there will be new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations on sunscreen claims and packaging, and sunscreens must follow stricter testing requirements before they can make claims about levels of effectiveness.

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Seattle seems an odd place to worry much about sunscreen. After all, we’re not known for our abundant sunshine. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the rate of new diagnoses of melanoma — responsible for 75 percent of all skin-cancer deaths — was 35 percent higher in Washington than the national average from 2001-2005, making our rate the fifth highest in the nation.

The statistics don’t surprise Olympia-based dermatologist Dr. Sasha Kramer. She says 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate clouds, making them flimsy protection against sun damage. “Washingtonians are also exposed to snow, sand and water, all of which reflect the sun’s ultraviolet rays.”

Her patients tell her they crave sunshine — and the tan skin that represents it. “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,” Kramer said, echoing state and national dermatology groups.

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The old cancer-prevention advice — always use sunscreen — is about to get a boost from new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations on sunscreen claims and packaging. As it is now, most label information is voluntary and often vague. The only requirement is a “sun protection” factor, which only applies to sunburn-causing UVB rays; nothing is required to indicate how well they protect against UVA rays, which contribute to aging and skin cancer.

“Even though a sunscreen could be labeled as ‘broad spectrum,’ the protection from UVA rays could vary widely from brand to brand,” said Kramer.

There were also no standardized testing methods to determine how water-resistant sunscreens were or how long their protection lasted after application.

Starting this December, sunscreens must follow stricter testing requirements before they can make claims about levels of effectiveness. Sunscreens that don’t protect against both UVA and UVB rays will have to include a warning to that effect. And water-resistance claims have to be based on how long the sunscreen works when people are moving around in the water as opposed to just resting in it.

The new rules will come in handy for people like Eileen Mitchell, a Seattle resident whose parents have both had dozens of surgeries to remove sun-damaged skin spots that could have led to cancer.

She tries to stay vigilant — “I use SPF 30, every day,” she said — but she still worries about the kind of sun damage that might lead to future surgeries.

Plenty of sunscreens now on the market already live up to the new effectiveness standards, but until the new labeling requirements kick in this December, it’s hard to tell which ones. Look for sunscreens with physical sun blockers such as zinc or titanium dioxide as their active ingredients; they provide broad-spectrum protection, don’t break down in the sun and are good for sensitive skin. Another option: put a hat and a sunshirt on yourself and your kids.

Skin protection Q&A

1. How much sunscreen should I use? The sun-protection numbers on the package are based on a pretty good slathering of the stuff and a reapplication at least every two hours. Kramer says a typical allover sunscreen application should be about a shot-glass’ worth, which means that a typical bottle of sunscreen should only last six to 10 applications. “If you are still using a tube of sunscreen from three summers ago, then clearly you are not applying enough to your body.”

2. Should I toss my old sunscreen? Maybe. Although many manufacturers have already changed their formulas to effectively protect against UVA and UVB, try to ensure that yours is one of them by looking for the words “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection.” Also, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends an SPF of at least 30.

3. What about vitamin D? Some Northwest residents are deficient in vitamin D, but sun exposure is not the only way to get it. Dermatologists say that getting it through food and supplements is safer. To get enough vitamin D from the sun, most people only need 15 minutes of exposure a couple of times a week.

4. If sunscreen is becoming more reliable, will I be able to lose the cover-up? No. Even with the new rules, no sunscreen will block 100 percent of the sun’s rays. The AAD recommends sticking with the basics: Stay in the shade between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (“if your shadow appears to be shorter than you are, seek shade”) and use protective clothing, especially around water, snow and sand. Don’t forget sunglasses.

5. I think I look and feel better when I have a tan. What’s the safe way to get one? Not in a tanning bed. “Recent studies have shown a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those who had been exposed to regular UV radiation from indoor tanning,” Kramer said. The Washington State Dermatology Association is waging a battle to ban tanning-bed use by those younger than 18, while 36 other states have similar regulations. The safest tan is a fake tan (you’ll still need sun protection).

6. If know I’ll be exposed to sun, shouldn’t I get a “base” tan? Kramer says a base tan provides little in the way of protection. Instead, plan on using lots of sunscreen and covering up in the sun.

Christy Karras: christykarras@gmail.com

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