Rx: Sunscreen and hat

sun damge
Photo: Jennifer Gordon/NEJM

This story and picture made the rounds last week and I intended to comment then. However, the message is no less important now.

This is Bill McElligott, age 69. He’s been a truck driver all his life. And the left side of his face is evidence of his daily exposure to the sun through his truck’s side window. This is why everyone should be using sunscreen every day, no matter where you go or what you do. If you’re outdoors, use suncreen.

I learned the lesson from my dermatologist back in the ’80s when I asked if I had rosacea. I had, and still have, permanent redness over my cheekbones, nose, jaw line, and the left side of my neck. Not rosacea, he said. Sun damage. Not only was I to use sunscreen every day, but he urged me to get my car windows tinted as additional protection. I did. He also suggested I apply Retin-A every day to the red areas to help fade the redness, but I found it too irritating.

These days the redness is not as noticeable, but it’s still there. My daily moisturizer contains sunscreen (UVA and UVB) and I use additional sunscreen when necessary. I’ve yet to tint my new car’s windows, but I’m reminded every time the sun hits me through that side window. The back windows are tinted but the front ones look clear; I think they might have a UVA/UVB film without the dark coloring, but I’m not sure.

I no longer commute 30 minutes due south in the morning and due north in the evening, which constituted intense, direct exposure for 15 years, but I’m certainly more aware of the danger. I have a variety of hats and visors, and I keep one in the car for when I can’t avoid direct sun. I also keep a small bottle of sunscreen in the car.

These days there’s a lot more awareness of the dangers of sun exposure (“Tanning Mom” is obviously one who never got the word), more so here in the Mile High City. I just wish Bill McElligott and I had known 30 years ago what we know now.

4 thoughts on “Rx: Sunscreen and hat

  1. I have followed this controversial topic for many years, so for whatever it’s worth, here’s my two cents on this.

    McElligott is a dramatic example of what happens with too much sun, but there is no corresponding picture of what happens with too little. If there were, it might be of a woman in a hospital bed with a fractured hip. The point is that it is almost impossible for a human being to get an adequate amount of vitamin D from diet. It comes from a process that depends on UV from sunlight, and if you use strong sunscreen all the time and avoid sunlight you are probably depriving yourself of a vital substance. Vitamin D is one of the most important factors there is in overall health, including that of the immune system. Drugs like Fosamax are not a substitute for natural vitamin D, by the way, and the latest data show they have serious side effects.

    The UV in sunlight varies dramatically with the angle of the sun in the atmosphere. There are charts you can find on the internet that show UV patterns based on time of year and latitude. In the winter it is actually hard to get enough UV anywhere in the USA. In the summer the amount of UV can be very damaging, but especially between the geological times of 10am and 2pm (remember to adjust for daylight savings time). I have been aware of this for a long time and accordingly I wear a hat and limit exposure during those times in the summer, but make sure I get some exposure outside those times. In winter I try to maximize exposure (except my forehead, which probably got overexposed in my youth.)

    I do not, thank goodness, look like McElligott. All things in moderation: get some sun every day. IMO.

    1. Wise words. No, I certainly wouldn’t advocate a sun-free lifestyle. Be sensible about it. You can protect your head, face, and neck and still get plenty of sun on the rest of your body. We have to be more careful here because of our more intense exposure at this altitude. Plus, we get a lot of exposure during the winter with snow sports. I find “All things in moderation” to be a great rule for just about everything. I also have a saying: “Never underestimate the restorative power of fresh air and sunshine.”

... and that's my two cents