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A dermatologist’s worlds collide to give us a unique take on taking care of summertime skin.

Dr. James Beckett takes his surfing seriously. While hardly a self-proclaimed aquatic “trickster,” this UCLA and Stanford Medical school grad knows there’s more to surfing than paddling out and riding the waves. For the Santa Cruz–based dermatologist, surfing begins on land—with sun safety. For the past 20 years, Beckett has helped cultivate skin cancer awareness among surfers by leading sun safety classes and performing free skin cancer checks. We caught up with this bicoastal expert to learn more about his unique experience and insights. LENA PARK

When did you start surfing?
I was pushed into my first wave on a surfboard in Southern California in the late 1960s and I’ve been surfing off and on ever since. I’m 67 years old now and not as nimble as I used to be, but whenever I have time, I try to get out there. I just love the thrill of surfing. It’s exhilarating to ride the wave—to paddle out there and just see the ocean and wildlife around you; to feel like you’re riding nature’s energy.

What compelled you to combine your passion for surfing with skin cancer awareness?
When my kids got involved with a junior lifeguard program, I was asked to give some talks on sun safety. I wanted to teach them that learning to be safe in the ocean was just as important as learning to be safe in the sun.

It was during this time that I met the owners of the O’Neill surf company, who wanted to promote sun safety with their wetsuits. After talking with them, I did my first free skin cancer screening at their surf store in Capitola for surfers in 1992. About that time, the American Academy of Dermatology—which consists of board-certified dermatologists—started a program that provided printed forms we could use to do skin cancer screenings. I invited some colleagues in the community to join me and we started doing screenings, not only at the O’Neill store but also at big surf contests and events around here. It’s just a great way for people, especially those without insurance, to see a board-certified dermatologist and have a screening.

So how exactly does sunscreen work to protect skin from the sun?
Sunblocks, which include reflective molecules of zinc oxide and titanium oxide, basically sit on the surface of skin and reflect UV away. The organic molecules in sunscreens absorb the UV and dissipate the energy as heat. But if you’re not using any sunscreen, those UV rays penetrate the epidermis that reaches DNA. When DNA is hit with UV photons, it can cause a mutation, which means a change in the DNA structure. That might lead to a cell losing control of its normal growth mechanism, which can be the prelude to forming cancer.

For surfers and others who spend a lot of time on the water, where do you tend to find most cases of skin cancer?
For women, we find that the most common places for them to develop melanoma are on their legs; for men, it’s on the head, neck, and upper trunk area. But we also see a lot of skin cancer on the backs of necks, on the ears, and on part lines on the scalp. People tend to remember to put sunscreen on their cheeks and noses, but often forget about their ears and neck.

As a skincare expert and a seasoned surfer, what’s the best way to protect skin from the sun and avoid skin cancer while in or on the water?
Wearing a wetsuit and a neoprene or lycra-based cap is the best way to protect the majority of your body. It’s the best sunblock you could have in the water. For the other parts of the body that are still exposed—particularly your face, neck, and hands—use a water-resistant broad spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 to protect your skin from UVB (the burning rays) and UVA (the “tanning” rays), as both are implicated in the formation of skin cancer.

How often should you reapply sunscreen?
Rather than just saying “water-resistant,” sunscreens are now to include 40- or 80-minute designations. The FDA is now requiring companies to test out their sunscreens to determine how long the formula will be effective to block UVA/UVB rays after being exposed to water. So if you’re going to stay out on the water for an hour to an hour and a half, be sure to put on the sunscreen that will last for 80 minutes and then reapply.

What say you to those who don’t wear sunscreen because they’re trying to get their daily dose of vitamin D?
Both sunscreens and sunblocks do prevent UVB from penetrating the skin, and UVB is critical in the formation of vitamin D3—which is the activated form of vitamin D. But in general, dermatologists don’t suggest getting your vitamin D3 from sun exposure. Actually, exposing your unprotected skin to the sun for more than 30 minutes per week depletes vitamin D3 in your system.

When it comes to cultivating sun safety awareness, particularly among surfers, what keeps you going?
Skin cancer is now a major epidemic. It’s increasing at a rate that’s extremely alarming. In 1950, the lifetime risk of an American developing melanoma was about one in 1,500. The most recent statistics show that about one in 35 are at risk in developing melanoma now. I think that now more than ever, sun safety and education is an incredibly important subject and is a message that we need to continue to bring awareness to.