For most people, car safety means seat belts and airbags. But there's another important way to stay out of harm's way on the road, and that's by protecting your skin from the sun.

When thinking about sun exposure, you might envision yourself sitting in your yard, on the beach, or exercising outdoors. But millions of Americans receive a large portion of their sun exposure when they don’t even realize it — in their cars.

For years, dermatologists have observed that patients in the US often have more sun damage (which can lead to wrinkles, leathering, sagging, brown “age” spots and even skin cancers) on the left side of their faces than on the right. Why? Research increasingly points to ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation penetrating through car windows.

UV radiation from the sun, associated with about 90 percent of all skin cancers, reaches the earth as long-wavelength UVA and short-wave UVB rays. Glass effectively blocks UVB, and windshields are specially treated to block UVA as well, but a car’s side and rear windows allow UVA to penetrate.

UV exposure is increasing, and research has proven that skin exposed to the sun shining through the window glass, even in the office, can over time lead to significant skin damage. The UV exposure we receive driving especially adds up. In a US study by Singer, et al, the researchers found asymmetric photodamage (sun-induced skin damage) on the face, with more brown pigment (color) and deeper wrinkles on the left. The more time subjects spent driving a vehicle, the more severe their photodamage on the left side. Reinforcing this research, in countries where the driver’s side is the right side, people tend to develop more sun damage and skin precancers on the right. Certain precancers can turn into squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer.

There are several ways to protect yourself in a car. The first is to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher to your face, arms, neck and hands, about half an hour before you go driving. Because UVA passes through the window glass, make sure your sunscreen contains some combination of UVA-shielding ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, stabilized avobenzone, and ecamsule (MexorylTM). Be sure to reapply after two hours, or after sweating heavily.

Protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants, UV-blocking sunglasses, and hats with a brim of at least 3 inches all around also help shield against the sun’s radiation. Hats are particularly important for men who have thinning hair and are at risk for developing skin cancer on top of their heads.


Written by: Senior Medicare Patrol and The Skin Cancer Foundation (skincancer.org)

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