The other day at the grocery store, I was searching for sunscreen. Having no luck, I stopped two employees who were chatting, and the male of the two said, “It’s right down this aisle. I’ll show you. But who needs sunscreen in the winter?”

Well, I do for one. Two years ago, I had a rather bad fall (another story altogether), in which I broke my nose, four teeth and nearly took out my left eye socket. I had a scab from my temple all the way down to my chin, including my upper lip. And when the scab finally disappeared, there was (eventually) a nice streak of baby fresh skin (the only plus of this experience is that I no longer have wrinkles around my left eye).

My husband, seated across the table from me every day, finally said I should do something about the unevenness in my skin. Ignoring his advice to check with my insurance company first, I high-tailed it to a place in town where all sorts of expensive skin treatments are done, by a physician. (I paid the bill upfront — $1,200 — and am still fighting the insurance company over it, so be warned.)

Twelve sessions of chemical peels, microdermabrasion and intense pulsed light treatments — slightly painful. At the end of my treatment, my skin looked better, and much more even. Admittedly, it is somewhat weird to watch a freckle fall off into the sink when doing the day’s ablutions.

Before all this happened, I pooh-poohed sunscreen, unless I knew I was in for a day of hot sunshine. But my doctor warned me to always wear sunscreen unless I wanted to fork over another grand to her. She said to always wear a hat, too. I had a friend and coworker who never wore a hat. He was diagnosed with melanoma in 2008. It went into remission, but it came back and he died in August 2009. His wife died of grief not long after.

He died right before I was warned to always wear sunscreen. So do I take it seriously? You bet I do. Especially in winter, with Wyoming’s bright sunny skies reflecting off our snowy surroundings, giving us more than a dose of summer sunshine.

I can remember my brother getting sunburned skiing shirtless on Casper Mountain, on one of those glorious 40 degree days with full sun we get in the winter. But sunburn is sunburn. There’s no difference when or how you get it.

A 2008 study showed that half of white adult Wyomingites got a sunburn during the previous year, according to information from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Wyoming Comprehensive Center Control Program and the Centers for Disease Control. The report cautiously says: “Sunburns are a significant risk factor for the development of skin cancer.”

The report states that melanoma is responsible for 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths and is the 6th most commonly diagnosed cancer in Wyoming. It estimates that, in 2009, 130 residents of Wyoming were diagnosed with melanoma, with Sweetwater County having the highest incidence (surprisingly, among the highest 4 percent of counties nationwide).

The report also states that about 17 people die from melanoma annually in Wyoming, and that Wyoming had the 4th highest melanoma death rate nationally from 2002-2006. Melanoma deaths are on the rise in our state, at a rate of 1.5 percent annually since 1975. Nationally, nearly one person per hour dies of melanoma.

Experts advocate for sunscreen and against just about anything else having to do with sunshine, such as sunbathing, tanning beds, tank tops and bathing suits. It is tough to get a teenager or young adult to wear sunscreen and long sleeves (although perhaps not the ubiquitous backward baseball cap), but people ages 15-29 are the most likely to get melanoma. Something that starts out looking like a little mole or strange freckle can be the first warning sign that you have melanoma, suggesting you should get to a doctor ASAP.

So, who needs sunscreen in the winter, other than me? You all do. Wyoming is not the worst state for melanoma cases and deaths, but it’s way up there.

This year, a 40-year-old friend came back from a water vacation in California with a super-red, glow-in-the-dark facial sunburn. He said he used sunscreen, but it just wouldn’t stay on in the water. So he asked me about zinc oxide, which has been demonstrated to be superior protection than your ordinary sunscreen. It might make you look like a geek (the last time I used it, my son told me I looked like Wayne Newton), but would you rather be a live geek or a dead Joe Cool?

Kate Missett has lived in Wyoming since 1961. She has been a writer/editor since high school.

DOWNLOAD OR READ a fact sheet on skin cancer in Wyoming.

Wyoming Skin Cancer

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