Monday, July 11, 2011

Sunscreen: An Essential for the Outdoor Worker's Tool Belt

Outside industrial work isn't a day at the beach, but that doesn't mean those workers don't need to take the same precautions against overexposure to the sun. Sunscreen protection is just as important for outdoor workers as it is for sunbathers.

The biggest risk of overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays is skin cancer. According to the California Department of Public Health, one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, and more than a million new cases are expected each year. Other studies show that outdoor workers face a higher risk of skin cancer and that they develop twice the number of non-melanoma skin cancers than indoor workers.

There are many types of cancers that can affect the skin, but the three main types are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma—which is the deadliest form. Outdoor workers' prolonged exposure to two forms of UV sunlight (UVA and UVB) put them at higher risk for these cancers.

The UVA ray, or Ultraviolet A, is a long-wave ray that causes hidden, long-term effects like premature aging and penetrates deep into the skin affecting the squamous and basal cells. UVA is now believed to be a major contributor to skin cancer. The UVB, Ultraviolet B ray, is a shortLinker wave that only penetrates the outer layer of the skin, but also causes sunburn, aging, and skin cancer.

Outdoor workers are already high risk for skin cancer because of the time they spend in the sun, but there are additional factors they need to take into consideration when taking precautions against skin cancer. Those factors include:
  • Fair skin; freckles
  • Green, blue, or hazel eyes
  • Light-colored hair
  • Skin that burns instead of tans
  • A history of severe sunburns
  • More than 50 moles on your body
  • Family history of skin cancer
So what can outdoor workers do to lessen their skin cancer risks? The simplest answer is regular and proper use of a good sunscreen:
"Of all the factors that affect your risk for melanoma, sun exposure is only one within our control," said Timothy Turnham, Ph.D., executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation. "When you're working outside, it’s easy to focus on the task at hand and overlook your personal safety. Wearing protective clothing and generously applying (and re-applying!) sunscreen on all exposed skin, even when it is cloudy, is critical to protecting your skin from potentially deadly damage. Always look for sunscreen that has at least SPF 30 and offers broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays."
When people think of sunscreen they immediately think SPF. The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) was introduced in 1962 and is a measurement of how effective the sunscreen is in blocking UV rays and for how long it will allow a person to be in the sun without burning.
The following calculation is used to figure out the maximum sun exposure time:
minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number = maximum sun exposure time
Of course, this is not a definitive answer considering that most people do not apply the recommended amount of sunscreen and don’t reapply every two hours as recommended.
Another thing to consider when choosing an SPF, is that an SPF of 50 or higher does not protect significantly better than an SPF of 30. Most recommendations for sun protection mention a minimum of SPF 15 or higher, with SPF 30 (which absorbs about 97% of the UV rays) being the most common suggestion.

It is also recommended to choose a sunscreen that contains mexoryl, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide as the main active ingredient. The Environmental Working Group has an excellent tool for choosing the right sunscreen.

Outdoor workers will experience the best sun protection by combining the right sunscreen with the following steps:
  • Apply sunscreen generously to exposed skin at least 15 minutes before going outdoors—even on cloudy days
  • Try to reduce sun exposure during the strongest UV times of day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours, after excessive sweating, and after swimming
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim that covers the head, face, and neck (some hats can have a back flap attached to cover the back of the neck)
  • Wear sunglasses, long-sleeve shirts, and pants for maximum protection
  • Work in shaded areas when possible
  • Wear SPF 15 or higher lip balm
  • Be extra cautious around sand, water, or snow as they can reflect the sunlight
  • Check your medications to see if they can increase your sensitivity to sunlight
By following these steps and performing monthly self-exams on their skin (checking for abnormal moles or growths) outdoor workers will better protect themselves from sun damage. Employers can also help protect their outdoor workers by offering information about sun protection, providing sunscreen, and encouraging its use.

The following list provides references and resources about sunscreen and skin cancer prevention:

Information for Outdoor Workers
Skin Cancer

The Q Source Resource thanks Dave Morrill, Assistant Operations Manager/QC of R&R Lotion, Inc. for his contributions to this article.

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