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Sun or not, Washington ranks among highest in skin cancer rates

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SEATTLE — Get out the sunscreen, Seattleites.

Sunshine and warm temperatures are coming down the pipe.

Of course, Seattleites should keep the sunscreen handy on cloudy days, too.

Despite its often-overcast weather, Washington ranks among the top 10 states for the highest rates of newly diagnosed cancerous melanoma of the skin, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Rates of diagnosed melanoma have been increasing by about two percent every year. And it’s the cloudy west side of the state that sees the highest skin cancer rates, the department says.

Between 2010-2014, Jefferson, Island, King, San Juan, Kitsap, Skagit and Snohomish counties had higher rates of newly diagnosed skin cancer than the rest of the state. Other classically cloudy states, like Delaware, Vermont and New Hampshire all rate among highest rates of melanoma, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

"It may be surprising that skin cancer is high in areas where rain and clouds dominate the sky for so many months of the year," Janna Bardi with the Department of Health said in a release.

The reason for the surprising rates in Puget Sound are not well understood, the department said. However, perhaps because people always see the clouds, they don't feel the need to wear sunscreen, the department suggested.

According to Dr. Peter Jenkin, a board-certified dermatologist in Seattle, skin cancer diagnosis has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years. Since Jenkin started his practice in 1980, skin cancer rates have more than tripled, he said.

He attributes this to our love affair with warm rays.

"Skin cancer is a national if not international epidemic," Jenkin said. "It all stems from our love affair with sunny vacations and sun exposure."

Jenkin said the impacts of UVA and UVB rays on the skin are cumulative. Just 11 minutes in the sun each day can do more harm to your skin than it can heal itself within 24 hours. And new studies show that most of the UV damage done in our lifetime happens before the age of 18.

"There is no such thing as a safe tan," Jenkin said. "A tan means your skin is crying out with damage done by the ultraviolet."

Jenkin said to protect against skin cancer, sunscreen should be applied every day, regardless of weather. Around 80 percent of the sun's UV rays can pass through clouds and reflect off of surfaces like water.

Around a shot glass full of sunscreen is needed to cover the normal amount of exposed areas in a given wardrobe, Jenkin said. If not enough sunscreen is used, its effectiveness goes way down.

Jenkin said sunscreen needs to be used even if you're spending most of the day indoors. UVA rays come through windows in homes and cars, and they can still damage the skin.

"We need to be using a broad-spectrum sunscreen everyday," Jenkin said. "If you're indoors, you're still being exposed and damaged."

The role of race may also play a part in melanoma diagnosis. According to Fox News, most of the states with the highest rates of melanoma also have some of the highest concentrations of white people.

Clothing also protects against sun damage, Jenkin said. But sunscreen is key.

"Sunscreens have been very effective at preventing skin cancer, precancerous legions and preventing the aging of skin," Jenkin says. "If people used more sunscreen, we would have less sun cancer."