To most people it’s a curiosity, something to laugh about with the kids: you spend a few hours a day driving and by mid-summer, your left hand and arm are shades darker than the right.
But as a new case presented in the New England Journal of Medicine shows, left-sided sun damage is no laughing matter. Over the years, that lopsided suntan and a few extra freckles can mutate into deep creases, sagging skin and a general look that’s far older than your true age—and, too often, a high risk of skin cancer.
This man is a 69-year-old truck driver, making his living behind the wheel for the past 28 years. Half of his face looks normal for his age, but because he spent daytime hours with the sun to his left for nearly three decades, the left side of his face looks decades older.
The name for his condition is unilateral dermatoheliosis (one-sided photoaging). Driving with the sun beating down on his face and arm exposed the patient to damaging UVA rays for hours each day, just as if he had been lying on a beach with that skin exposed. Even with the window closed, UVA rays can penetrate window glass if not tinted enough to protect passengers inside the vehicle.
Sun worshippers pay a price for enjoying those drives in the sunshine, experts say. Researchers at the University of Washington studied cancer cases tracked by the U.S. government. Their findings, published in the American Academy of Dermatology, showed that when melanoma affected one side of a person’s body, it was on the left side—the driver’s side—52 percent of the time. Merkel cell cancers, another type of skin cancer, appeared on the left side in 53 percent of cases.
This isn’t the first evidence that motoring in the sun might be linked to skin cancer. A 2010 study of 1,047 skin cancer patients at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, published in the same journal, came to the same conclusion: in both men and women, more skin cancers were found on the left side of the body than the right. And in Australia, where people drive on the right-hand side of the road, drivers’ right arms and right sides of their faces get the sun exposure. A 1986 study found that a majority of precancerous growths among Australian men occurred on their right sides.
Tinting window glass does afford some protection; compared to untinted glass, it admits 3.8 percent fewer UVA rays. The most protective color is gray, which admits only 0.9 percent of UVA light, compared to 62.8 percent of UVA light admitted through clear glass. (UVB rays don’t penetrate glass to a dangerous degree.)
But tinted glass can pose visibility issues. “People who are considering tinting their windows should take their car to a professional auto detailing shop, in order to ensure that the tinting meets the federally mandated 70 percent of minimum visible light transmittance through the windshield,” advises the American Academy of Dermatology. Auto glass tinting can be regulated by state law, and professional detailers will be aware of those guidelines.
In 2010, more than 68,000 new cases of melanoma were diagnosed in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute, and some 8,700 people died from it. Those aren’t the best odds; skin cancer is deadly. But short of tinting the glass in your car’s side windows, there are plenty of ways to protect yourself against one-sided skin damage:
Photos courtesy of the New England Journal of Medicine.
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