Ah, summer’s finally here. Long, sunny days that are great for growing
crops and getting never-ending outdoor work done. But there is a serious
downside to this season’s good weather that warrants attention: unprotected
exposure to the sun is bad for your health.
Big deal, you may think, I’ve been working outside for years without
any problem, and who doesn’t like a nice tan? The problem is that ultraviolet
(UV) rays from the sun can lead to skin cancer. Common sites for skin cancer
include the face, tips of ears, hands, neck, forearms and lips -- areas
that farmers typically leave uncovered.
Know your skin. The skin is the largest organ in the
body, and it has 3 layers. From the outside in, they are: the epidermis,
the dermis, and the subcutis. The top layer of the skin, the epidermis,
is very thin and serves to protect the deeper layers of skin and the organs.
The epidermis itself has three layers: an upper, a middle, and a bottom
layer composed of basal cells. These basal cells divide into squamous cells,
which make keratin that helps protect the body.
Also found in the epidermis is another type of cell called a melanocyte.
These cells produce the pigment melanin. The tan or brown color of skin
comes from melanin, which helps protect the deeper layers of the skin from
the harmful effects of the sun.
Two types of skin cancer. Skin cancers are divided into
non-melanomas and melanomas. Non-melanomas, usually basal cell and squamous
cell cancers, are the most common cancers of the skin. Because they rarely
spread elsewhere in the body, they are less worrisome than melanomas.
Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the melanocytes. Because most
of these cells keep on making melanin, melanoma tumors are often brown
or black, but not always. While having dark skin lowers the risk of melanoma,
it does not mean that a person with dark skin will never develop melanoma.
Melanoma is almost always curable in its early stages. But it can spread
to other parts of the body. Melanoma is much less common than basal cell
and squamous cell skin cancers, but it is far more serious.
The extent of the problem. Cancer of the skin is the
most common of all cancers. Melanoma accounts for about 4% of skin cancer
cases, but it causes most skin cancer deaths. The number of new cases of
melanoma in the United States is on the rise. The American Cancer Society
estimates that in 2006 there will be 62,190 new cases of melanoma in this
country. About 7,910 people will die of this disease. Persons with white
skin are 10 times more likely to have it than African Americans, but anyone
can get skin cancer, regardless of skin color.
Cumulative sun exposure is a major factor in development of skin
cancer. Small changes occur in the skin each time it is exposed to sunlight.
People who burn easily, rarely tan, freckle or have a fair complexion,
have blonde or red hair, or have blue or gray eyes, experience greater
skin changes. Skin cancer usually is not associated with a single, painful
sunburn, but rather with repeated exposure to the sun and changes in the
skin’s makeup. By taking a few simple precautions you can reduce your risk
of skin cancer.
Long lunch breaks? Stay out of the sun as much
as possible when the sun is most intense during the mid-day hours. While
this is not always practical for farmers, it does make sense to take a
long lunch break, catch up on phone calls, or do some paperwork in the
middle of that day when the sun’s rays are most damaging. Try to work outside
early in the morning or late in the day when it’s probably cooler, anyway.
While you’re outside, be sure to use sunscreen and to wear appropriate
headgear, clothing, and sunglasses.
Use your head. Put on a hat. Protection for the face
and other parts of the head can be just that simple, but not all hats do
a good job of stopping the sun. The traditional farmer’s baseball cap does
not protect vulnerable areas on the ears, temples, face, and neck. Other
hats provide better protection, such as wide brimmed hats, pith helmets,
and hats with flaps. There are many styles to choose from. If it makes
you feel better, you can probably get your favorite farm implement logo
sewn on these hats, too.
When selecting a hat, make sure it will be cool enough to wear on
hot days, and that it’s practical for other conditions, like strong wind
or rain showers. Most important, make sure it’s comfortable so that you’ll
actually wear it.
Cover up. Clothing helps block the UV rays of the sun
from reaching the skin. If possible, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants,
and socks. Closely woven or knitted fabrics are more protective because
they lack open spaces that let UV rays through to your skin. Clothes dyed
in dark colors can absorb ultraviolet rays and shield your skin better
than light colored ones. However, some light colored and white clothes
are specially manufactured to block UV rays. If not, they can be washed
using a detergent with brighteners which can help absorb those rays and
Lather up. Sunscreen lotion should be applied to skin that’s
not covered by clothes, but sunscreens are not a substitute for wearing
proper clothing. Sunscreens recommended for outdoor workers should have
a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of at least 15. This means that you
are protected from a reaction to the sun’s effects 15 times longer than
you are without the sunscreen. Read the label to know when to re-apply
sunscreen and whether it is waterproof.
Put on the shades. I was surprised to learn that our
eyes need protection from the sun, too. Even the most effective hats can
block only 50 percent of the UV rays that reach the eyes. A good shade
hat combined with the use of sunglasses is the way to protect eyes from
sun exposure. Note that sunglasses vary widely in the amount of protection
from UV radiation. A peel-off label on the lens indicates its UV rating
as the percentage of UV rays blocked by the sunglasses. If no information
is provided by the manufacturer, the sunglasses may not offer any added
The risk of skin cancer is real. Any steps you can take to reduce
your cumulative exposure to the sun can help reduce that risk. Make it
a habit to protect yourself from the sun.