The danger of too much exposure to sunlight

Take a look at this photograph published in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. (You can see a larger photo by clicking on the link.) It show the asymmetric skin damage on the face of a 69-year old truck driver due to the many hours driving with just the left side of his face exposed to sunlight.

Those of us who grew up in the tropics avoided staying out in the sun if we possibly could. We sought the shade and I still find it strange when at the first sign of warm weather in the spring, people here in the US rush to lie out in the sun in skimpy clothing.

Of course, us brown-skinned people don’t feel the need to get a tan and in fact in many tropical countries having a pale skin is a desirable sign of wealth and privilege and is flaunted, since it shows that one lives a life of luxury that does not require outdoor labor.

Noel Coward’s song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” made fun of the crazy behavior of the British colonials in the tropics, ignoring the avoidance practices of the locals to show their disdain for the dangers of sun and heat. (You can read the lyrics here.)


  1. Alverant says

    I remember that song. They wouldn’t wear proper clothing either. (Proper being “proper for that climate” not “proper for that society”.)

  2. 'Tis Himself says

    I read this sentence:

    Those of us who grew up in the tropics avoided staying out in the sun if we possibly could.

    and thought that it would be appropriate to link to Noël Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”. Then I saw you’d had the same thought.

  3. F says

    Indeed. I know one truck driver with no lips and skin cancer on the left arm (treated and going well, excepting the skin is fragile and beat-up). I know others with similar problems. Being behind glass can make the effects of the sun worse.

    Hardly limited to truck drivers, but they make for very good comparative illustration – a latitudinal study in a single individual.

  4. says

    After 12 years living in Italy, but going to university in Ireland, I’ve lost track of the times people wonder why I’m not more tanned. In fact, I actually get more colour in Galway than in Lombardia, mainly because it’s too hot and sticky here in summer!

  5. IB says

    Never understood the obsession with tanning. Its gotten to the point that people are applying fake tan in shades that are not even biologicaly possible for humans.

  6. left0ver1under says

    I live in Taiwan, in a city almost on the Tropic of Skin Cancer. A half hour exposure between 10:00AM to 2PM in June can be enough to cause sunburn, so few people go out in the day. I rarely burn compared to most westerners, and even I am heavily affected. It makes summer almost as depressing as winter because you spend much of your time indoors.

    Being active can be difficult in the summer, the time when people most want to be. One school near where I live seems to have been planned to protect kids. The school’s track and playground are to the northeast of the building, fully shadowed in the afternoons. And many cycling shops sell removable lycra extensions for cyclists’ arms and legs.

    On a related note, there is also the emphasis in some Asian countries on light skin; I’ve seen that in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, and heard that it happens in others. That’s not necessarily “white” as in caucasian, but “not dark”.

    Being “light” is somehow viewed as “superior”, and having darker skin has abhorrently become a sign of “lower status”. People who have white collar jobs don’t do physical labour (like construction, farming, etc.) tend to have lighter skin due to less exposure. There are huge markets in some countries for “skin whiteners”. Instead of preventing the problem (cheaply) by covering up and staying inside, marketers seem intent on profiting from it, and people are stupidly buying into it.

    Back to the point of the post, it may not just be truck drivers. I would bet a study on family cars (long and/or sexist marriages, where men do most of the driving) would say the same – husbands have burns and cancer on their left arm and wives on their right arms.

  7. Dunc says

    Well, here in Scotland we get out in the sun at every opportunity because we’re all suffering from chronic vitamin D deficiencies due to the high latitude and lousy weather.

  8. raymoscow says

    Yeah, those of us living in northern Europe (where the pale-skin genes apparently originated) have to take advantage of the little bits of sunlight we occasionally get.

    Although I am a bit appalled to see that some people have no sense about overexposure at all. After the first sunny day, they are red as lobsters.

  9. IB says

    Actualy we don’t have to fuss about getting in the sun too much, we have light skin for a reason.

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