The New England Journal of Medicine recently featured a 69-year-old male truck driver who suffers from premature aging. Lots of studies warn against the impact of sun damage, but what makes this one so interesting is the strange before/after effect particular to the subject. The 69-year-old truck driver was exposed to sun far more on the left side of his face, where the damage is accelerated compared to the right side of his face. For 28 years, the man was hit with ultraviolet A (UVA) damage through the window of his truck. Although ultraviolet B (UVB) rays can lead to skin damage, UVA rays have been more associated with cases of skin cancerSkin changes in the elderly people–how strong is the influence of the UV radiation on skin aging? Situm, M., Buljan, M., Cavka, V., et al. Department of Dermatology and Venereology, University Hospital Sestre Milosrdnice, Zagreb, Croatia. Collegium Antropologicum, 2010 Apr;34 Suppl 2:9-13. The man was advised to use sunscreen and other topical agents after the study.

It’s Always Sunny — Why It Matters

Other studies have found similar associations between lifetime sun exposure and skin aging. People younger than 50 have more sensitive skin to sun exposure, all the more reason for people in their prime to lather on the sunscreen.The driver’s case shows why it’s important to use sunscreen, stay covered, and avoid sun when it’s at its highest point. This is especially important for people who are constantly exposed to UVA raysReduced melanoma after regular sunscreen use: randomized trial follow-up. Green, A.C., Williams, G.M., et al. Queensland Institute of Medical Research, PO Royal Brisbane Hospital, Queensland, Australia. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2011 Jan 20;29(3):257-63. Of course, the study is limited to one special case subject, so it’s hard to extrapolate the findings to the general public. The article also did not indicate if there were any other contributing factors to the skin damage, such as use of sunscreen or sun exposure when not on the job.

To UVB or Not to UVB — The Need-to-Know

The study is a clear call to make sure to stay covered even when sipping coladas and having summer fun. Wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher protects the skin against dangerous UVA/B rays. Applying about 2 tablespoons (about the same amount as a shot glass) at least 15 minutes before going outside and reapplying every 2 hours will help keep skin healthy. Also look out for labels on sunscreen bottles on what kinds of rays the skin is being protected from. But what the heck is the difference between the two? Here are the players:

  • UVA: These longer waves are more harmful because they’re able to penetrate through window glass, such as the truck driver’s vehicle, offices, and houses. This also allows them to enter deeper into our skin and effect connective tissue and blood vessels, causing skin aging and wrinkling. UVA waves make up 90 percent to 95 percent of the waves that reach the earth’s surface year round. People are even susceptible to UVA damage through some cotton clothing. UVA is also the ray found in most tanning salon booths.
  • UVB: These shorter waves are found in 5 percent to 10 percents of the solar UV energy that reaches the earth’s surface, primarily between 10 am and 4 pm from April to October. These waves can be blocked by windows and glass. UVB is primarily responsible for skin reddening and sunburns. That’s when SPF — an indication of how long it will take UVB rays to redden the skin after applying sunscreen — comes in handy. UVB rays are also found in tanning booths.

Sunscreen isn’t the only protection out there, though. Wearing a hat or sunglasses are always options. When possible opt for shade, especially midday when those UVB rays are waiting to pounce. To avoid the truck driver’s incident, add tinted UV film to windows such as in houses and cars to protect against skin damage. To enjoy more time outside in the sun, abide by these actions. And remember — have fun!

Photo: Jennifer Gordon and Meghan Dubina