What The Sun Can Do To You — Even Through Glass

A truck driver featured in The New England Journal of Medicine

A truck driver featured in The New England Journal of Medicine ©2012. The NEJM asks that there be no resale of this image or use of the image by a commercial agency.

“Wow,” I said as it slowly dawned on me what I was seeing. This case appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine in April, but now that summer’s truly kicking in, this is the time to send it around to all the people you care about enough to remind them to wear sunscreen.

The man in the picture had been a delivery truck driver for 28 years, according to The New England Journal of Medicine case study. The journal calls his condition “unilateral dermatoheliosis,” which I would translate as “The sun has fried the side of his face that was next to the truck window.”

The explanation from doctors Jennifer R.S. Gordon and Joaquin C. Brieva of Northwestern University: “Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays transmit through window glass, penetrating the epidermis and upper layers of dermis. Chronic UVA exposure can result in thickening of the epidermis and stratum corneum, as well as destruction of elastic fibers.”

The prescription: “The use of sun protection and topical retinoids and periodic monitoring for skin cancer were recommended for the patient.”

(Hat-tip to Boston University School of Public Health and thegloss.com)

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  • Sam

    What’s fascinating to me is viewing and comparing the truck driver’s eyes. The tissue around the left eye is superior to the tissue of the right. Hmm. Anyone else notice this?

  • Mgodwyn

    P.Magri- you don’t buy it? Really? Who cares? Get skin cancer. Or here’s an idea: keep your head in the sand, maybe that will protect your face. I expected more from a WBUR  audience.

  • Acolleen

    I have noticed the very same thing on my face.  I live alone and am the only driver, so to speak.  I do wear sunscreen and have always done so for the past 15-20 years (SPF 15), but lately increased to SPF30 after noticing this effect.  I’m not driving as often as a truck driver, but several times a week and cannot think of any other reason for this effect on my face.

  • Gotmercury

    Wouldn’t all truck drivers have this roblem?  How about posting photos of many truck drivers?  How about a statistically valid study?  How about stupid reporting?

    • D. Smith

      What statistics were offered? What I read was just that this was observed in truckdrivers….not all truck drivers, not most truck drivers, not a half dozen truck drivers…and then compared to whom? Housewives? Students? This was just a medical observation. And the cause was plausible, not proven! We’re not talking planned medical reasearch here.

  • David Ropeik

    skin cancer is FAR more likely on the left arm than the right in every country except Japan and England, where the driver is on the other side and his/her right arm sticks out. guess which arm is more commonly afflicted with skin cancer there? If you guess right, you’re right.

  • Robert Beson

    I respectfully disagree most strongly with this report.
    There are insufficient words in the English language to express my thoughts
    about this case.
    Roberrt Beson 

  • P.Magri

    Huh? Was the sun always and only positioned on the driver’s left? Why did the UV entering through the windshield not even things out? The angle couldn’t have differed that much between the left an the front of the truck. Not buying it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/TheBigBB Bryan Backas

      The direct sunlight was mostly only hitting the side of his face which was next to the window. Of course sometimes the sun was not hitting either side of his face, but it’s almost impossible for the side away from the window to ever get hit by direct sunlight. It’s a pretty common experience of anyone who’s driven a vehicle.

      • Stephen J

        The question then is was it really through the window or was it from all the times he drove around with the window open? I’m not sure if we have those data.

        • nicoise

          Either way, the damage is apparent.  The photo serves as a warning  to the many people who think sun exposure is “no big deal”.

    • Goodman156

      I commuted from Oakland to Sillicon Valley every day for 5 years.  When you sit in the driver’s seat, if you are of average height, your face is protected by the roof and the sun visors, and at the beginning and the end of the day, sun is beaming in at the left side of your face.  I did everything I could to stop this, including using tinted plastic squares stuck to the window, but covering up is the best solution.  I wore hats pulled down over the left side of my face. 

      I have had over 200 squamous cell carcinomas excised from my body, and the left side of my face has had more than the right side.

    • Don_B1

      Skin damage from the sun’s UVA rays is cumulative. For those hours (or minutes or even seconds) that the sun does come through the driver-side window, they directly strike the (left) side of the face; when driving directly toward the sun, to see out the windshield the driver usually if not always blocks the suns rays.

      But this driver did the same thing for 28 years which is probably longer than most. And he may have more sensitive skin. While it would have been nice to know the answer to those questions and also how many others have had such clear effects, the story is that this demonstrates that sun damage does occur. What should have been more strongly pointed out was that damage LESS than this can lead to skin cancers.

      Everyone should take strong note of David Ropeik’s post below.

    • Donna Smith

      How much sun do you get from the passengerside window?