Did you know that the average American spends 55 minutes per day behind the wheel, typically driving about 15,000 miles per year?1 While drivers may feel protected from the sun, research shows that UV rays can penetrate your car windows, increasing your risk of skin damage, and even skin cancer. Additionally, because US drivers sit on the left side of the car, skin cancers are more common on the left side of the body, due to sun exposure coming through the window.2
UVA vs UVB: What’s the difference?
In the car, you are exposed to two types of UV rays: UVA (longer wavelength) and UVB (shorter wavelength).3 While research suggests that UVB rays can lead to skin cancer, recent studies show that UVA rays may be also responsible for some skin cancers, especially left-sided skin cancers from exposure in the car.2
Don’t my windows protect me from UV rays?
While car windows typically block out UVB rays, studies show that they do not fully block UVA rays.2,3 Some cars even have as low as 50% UV blockage, including cars with tinted windows.4 While the average windshield blocks most UV rays, side and rear windows (which are less regulated than windshields) usually let in these rays.4 Additionally, a car’s UV-protection is rarely dependent on cost, meaning that higher-end cars may offer as little UV protection as more affordable models.3
For US drivers, UV exposure is 5 times greater to the left arm and 20 times greater to the left side of the face. This left-side sun exposure triggers sun damage, which can cause wrinkles, skin leathering, sagging, and brown ‘age’ spots.3 Similarly, the more time you spend driving, the higher your risk of skin damage. 3,6
Because of drivers’ UV exposure, research shows that all types of skin cancers are more common on the left side of the body.2 In particular, melanoma skin cancers are significantly more likely to present on the left side, especially on the left arm.5 In one study, almost 75% of melanomas were diagnosed on the left side.6 However, in countries where people drive on the right side of the car, skin damage and skin cancers are actually more common on the right sight of the body and face.3,6
How do I protect myself?
To limit your UV exposure while driving, consider these tips for sun safety3,7 :
Sunscreen: Before getting in the car, be sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher. Unlike other products, broad-spectrum sunscreens protect you from UVB and UVA rays. For easy access, keep extra sunscreen in your car, and be sure to re-apply every 2 hours.
Protective Clothing/Accessories: To protect your skin from the sun’s rays, consider keeping sun-safe clothing and accessories in the car. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants or skirts, a wide-brimmed hat, UV-blocking sunglasses, or even a lightweight scarf can keep your skin protected. Especially if you are driving or riding in a convertible, be sure to wear a wide-brim hat (ideally 3 inches all around) to protect your face, ears, neck, and scalp. You can also shop for clothing with built-in sun protection, and keep these extra layers in your car.
UV-Protection Film: While your windshield blocks most UV rays, rear and side windows often allow harmful UV exposure to reach your skin. To keep yourself safe, consider purchasing a clear or tinted UV-protection film for your car windows. Some films block up to 99% of UV rays, and research shows that a UV-protection film can reduce sun damage by 93%.2 While clear films are legal in all 50 states, be sure to check your state laws before applying a tinted film.
Windows: Not surprisingly, your UV exposure is much higher through an open car window than a closed one.5 To limit your UV exposure, try to keep car windows closed, especially during peak sun hours (usually 10am to 2pm). If you do need to open the windows, be prepared with sunscreen and protective clothing to keep your skin safe.
If you’re worried about skin cancer recurrence, or even if you’ve never been diagnosed with skin cancer, consider these steps to reduce your sun exposure while driving. In addition to regular skin checks, self-exams, and other sun-protection strategies, limiting your in-car sun exposure may reduce your risk of future skin damage or cancers.
Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "National Household Travel Survey Daily Travel Quick Facts.” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, US Department of Transportation, www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/subject_areas/national_household_travel_survey/daily_travel.html.Accessed 18 Jan. 2018.
Butler, Susan T., and Scott W. Fosko. "Increased Prevalence of Left-Sided Skin Cancers." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 63, no. 6, 11 Mar. 2010, pp. 1006-10, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20226568. Accessed 18 Jan. 2018.
Butler, Susan T. "Sun Hazards in Your Car." Skin Cancer Foundation, 21 May 2013, www.skincancer.org/prevention/are-you-at-risk/sun-hazards-in-your-car. Accessed 18 Jan. 2018.
Seaman, Andrew M. "Car Door Windows Don't Stop UV Rays." Reuters, 12 May 2016, www.reuters.com/article/us-health-uv-windows/car-door-windows-dont-stop-uv-rays-idUSKCN0Y32WI. Accessed 18 Jan. 2018.
Paulson, Kelly G., et al. "Asymmetric Lateral Distribution of Melanoma and Merkel Cell Carcinoma in the United States." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 65, no. 1, 21 Apr. 2011, pp. 35-39, doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2010.05.026. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.
O'Connor, Anahad. "The Claim: You Cannot Get Sunburned Through a Car Window." The New York Times, 4 Apr. 2011. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2011/04/05/health/05really.html. Accessed 18 Jan. 2018.
Skin Cancer Foundation. "Sun Safety in Cars." Skin Cancer Foundation, www.skincancer.org/prevention/sun-protection/shade/sun-safety-cars. Accessed 18 Jan. 2018.