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Do Much Driving? It's Written All Over Your Face

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When patients come into Dr. Suzanne Kilmer's Sacramento dermatology office, she usually can tell right away whether they've spent their lives primarily as drivers or as passengers.


If the left side of the face has more wrinkles, crags and blotches, the patients are drivers. If it's the right side, they're passengers.

That's right. Sitting in traffic day in and day out doesn't just put stress on our hearts and fill our lungs with dangerous fumes. Now experts are saying it also causes our skin to age prematurely, and it may even lead to skin cancer.

The problem is that motorists think their windshields and windows protect them from the sun.

That's only partially true.

Glass does block out some ultraviolet radiation waves -- the so-called UVB radiation -- that cause sunburn and lead to squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas.

But the other waves, the more ubiquitous UVA rays, are still getting through. And as any dermatologist will tell you, UVA rays aren't exactly harmless.

UVA rays penetrate even more into the skin, damaging deeper tissues and breaking down collagen and elastin, the proteins that give skin its tautness and elasticity. That's why UVA rays are also known as "aging rays."

A case in point, Kilmer says, is a 65-year-old patient of hers who spent 40 years driving a school bus.

"One side of her face looks like corduroy; the other side looks like a normal 65-year-old woman's," Kilmer says.

In St. Louis, Dr. Scott Fosko sees more cases of actinic keratoses, which are precancerous skin lesions, on the left side of the face and forehead than on the right side.

The other day, Fosko says, he treated a 68-year-old man whose job required him to do a lot of driving around town, and he did much of it with his arm resting on his open window.

"He had a little bit of damage on the right side of his forehead," Fosko said. "You looked at the left side, and it was 10 times worse."

How can you protect yourself?

Dermatologists recommend making sunscreen as routine as putting on your seat belt, something 91 percent of Californians do before getting on the road.

But they also warn that you have to find the right product.

Most sunscreens protect the skin against UVB rays -- something a car window already takes care of. Instead, dermatologists suggest sunscreens such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which block both types of rays.

Dr. Ann Haas, another Sacramento-area dermatologist, says motorists who are particularly sensitive to the sun may want to think about additional protection.

Companies such as Coolibar and Solumbra, for example, sell sun-protective clothing. Drivers who are worried about brown spots on their hands, for example, can buy gloves that offer protection when grabbing the steering wheel at the sun-prone 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position.

Another option is a window film called Llumar, which blocks out 99 percent of both UVA and UVB rays, protecting not only a car's interior, but also a motorist's skin.

"Or they may want to consider commuting in the early morning or early evening when the sun isn't so bad," Haas says.

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