Q&A: Dermatologist Kim Abson on Seattle's Sunny Season

As Seattle reacquaints itself with the sun, Nancy Guppy visits a dermatologist.

A PRACTICED EYE: Dr. Kim Abson says a high point of her career has been teaching at the University of Washington and “sharing the knowledge I have from observation, things that aren’t necessarily going to be found in a book.” Photo by Alex Crook

This story appears in the July 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Have you ever lain in the sun, slathered in baby oil? Oh, sure, when I was little. The maturation of modern sunscreen didn’t occur until about 1982, and I was born well before that.

If I lay in the sun as a kid, is the damage already done? Most people have 80 percent of their sun exposure before the age of 20, so, yes.

Describe the condition of my skin. There’s evidence of sun damage — brown spots, broken blood vessels, tan lines, wrinkles — but because you’ve done a much better job of sun blocking in the last few years, I can see that your skin is rehabbing.

Does it annoy you when patients don’t take your advice? No. It’s always a work in progress, trying to get people where they need to go. But some people are addicted to the sun or to tanning beds, so the best thing I can do, because they’re at a much higher risk for skin cancer, is to see them more frequently.

What’s worse, the sun or tanning beds? Tanning beds by far because you’re just two inches away from the wavelength.

How do you give somebody the “bad” news? I do it in person and I give my home phone number because, invariably, after we have the conversation, the person goes home and their family and friends will say, “What about this?” or, “Did you ask about that?” Good communication is essential.

What is Kim Abson’s daily skin regime? I don’t wash my face with a cleanser. Water is fine. And I use a retinoid cream, a moisturizing cream that has ceramides, and sunscreen containing 5 percent zinc oxide.

How do you get your makeup off if you don’t use a cleanser? You’re desquamating [shedding] all day long, so the makeup you put on in the morning is almost gone by end of day.

Are expensive products better than cheap stuff? No. In general, I look at those expensive items as glorified moisturizers. That said, it’s like getting a massage. They make you feel good about yourself and there’s value in that.

Would you ever go under the knife? I tend to be more noninvasive, so sun protection, Botox and lasers are my personal mainstay.

What do you like most about your job? Two things: I like saving a person’s life by picking up a skin cancer early on and I like solving a problem that no other dermatologist can.

Did you always want to be a dermatologist? Oh, no. I started my career wanting to be a dentist — I had posters of teeth in my bedroom — but in my second year of college, I spent time with a dentist and hated it!

What made you choose dermatology? When I was the chief resident at Duke University, doing rounds with the attending dermatologist, I kept pointing out things that no one else could see and he told me that I should use my visual acuity in my career. So, I did.

When you meet someone for the first time, do you see a face or do you see skin? I see skin.

Do you make a diagnosis in your head? I try to not go there.

Have you ever “gone there” because you knew it was a serious situation? Yes, and it wasn’t comfortable. But I was probably saving that person’s life, so …

What have you learned from your patients? Resiliency, kindness, and to travel while you’re young because some of my patients waited until retirement, and then they got ill or had a heart attack or needed a knee or hip replacement and never got to fulfill their dreams.

Studies show that $75,000 a year is the monetary baseline for a happy life. Do you agree? Oh, yes. Exercise, hiking, being with people, laughter — those are the things that matter.

How would you describe your relationship to money? It allows me to live in Seattle and go to the PCC! (Big laugh.)

What four guests would make for the perfect dinner party? [Duke basketball coach] Mike Krzyzewski, Jane Austen, Barack Obama and then a person who gives angst … perhaps somebody from Fox News.

Do you have any secret talents? I paint landscapes and I’m a master gardener.

Is there anything in the world you cannot live without? Custom earplugs. When you put them in and go to bed, it’s like entering a cocoon.

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