How to keep your skin safe while working in the sun

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

One blistering sunburn before the age of 18 doubles your chance of getting melanoma. I had that one blistering burn — actually there were many sunburns — but one in particular I remember being especially bad. 

At 55 years of age, I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Because I didn't check my skin on a regular basis, by the time I knew something was wrong, the melanoma had spread to my lymph nodes. Statistics said I had less than a 10 percent chance of living five years. 

Protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses are ways to protect your skin from the sun's ultraviolet rays.

As a youth, I loved being outside. Growing up on a farm lends itself to a love of outdoors. I remember countless hours driving a tractor — without a cab, without an umbrella, without protective clothing, a hat or sunscreen. I didn't like the way sunscreen smelled, or the way it was a magnet for dirt and dust. It felt too hot to wear anything with sleeves. Obviously, if I was old enough to drive a tractor, I was old enough to take protective measures, but back then skin cancer wasn't on anyone's radar and I did nothing to protect my skin.

Even after leaving the farm, sunscreen still wasn't in my arsenal, nor was avoiding the sun at peak times of the day. I didn't sunbath, but I didn't take proper precautions. I was more aware of odd tan lines than I was of the dangers of skin cancer. 

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Moreover, many cases of melanoma — the deadliest kind of skin cancer — are caused by exposure to ultraviolet light. 

Hidden danger

Yet, farmers, spend many hours in the midday sun, a major risk factor for skin cancer. Afterall, hay is made when the sun is shining brightest — that's also when the sun's rays are the strongest and most damaging. 

Sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher should be used generously (about 1 ounce) on all exposed skin when spending time in the sun - even on cloudy days.

Farming is a dangerous occupation. One danger that can't be seen, but can be equally devastating, is the sun's ultraviolet rays (UV). Sweating may contribute to UV-related skin damage because it increases a person's photosensitivity of the skin, leading to a risk of sunburns, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). And when you sweat, sunscreen comes off — if you are smarter than me and use it.  

Even a cloudy day isn't safe as up to 80 percent of the sun's ultraviolet rays can pass through the clouds. 

UV radiation also reflects — off water, sand, concrete, light-colored surfaces and snow. 

Any "tanning" that occurs to the skin caused by sunlight or tanning bed rays is not "tanned skin." It's sun-damaged skin which is a catalyst for wrinkles, dark spots and skin cancer, according to Nicholas Grimm, physician assistant at Aurora BayCare Clinic Plastic Surgery & Skin Care Specialists in Ashwaubenon. 

With nearly 9,500 people in the U.S. diagnosed with skin cancer every day, according to AAD, and one person on average dying from melanoma every hour in the U.S., farmers, who spend the most time outside, need to protect their skin when working those long hours. 

How to protect your skin

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends the following measures to reduce the risk of sun damage to the skin.

Get in the shade, if possible. The sun's rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. A good guideline to follow — if your shadow is shorter than you, seek shade.

Wear protective clothing. Farmers can't seek shade when the sun's rays are strongest. A breathable, long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, a cloth flap to protect the back of the neck and sunglasses block the sun's damaging rays. 

Use sunscreen. A broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher should be applied generously (about an ounce) to all exposed skin. Don't forget ears, the back of the neck, and hands. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and after excessive sweating. 

Be aware of reflective surfaces. Not only does the sun reflect off water, snow and sand, the damaging rays of the sun are intensified, increasing the chances of sunburn. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created an app for both iPhone and Android devices that lets users determine their UV radiation exposure at their location  Visit for more information. 

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, yet it is the most preventable.

Know your skin

If I had realized the importance of checking my skin on a regular basis, my melanoma would have been caught much earlier, when it was more treatable. Once damage is done from a lifetime of sun exposure, checking your skin is crucial. 

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends checking your skin every month. Self-examination can alert you to changes on your skin. Doing a head to toe self exam every month takes about 10 minutes, but can save your life.

Skin cancers found and removed early are almost always curable, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. 

The doctors never determined the source of my melanoma. I check my skin once a month or more frequently and get yearly exams from my dermatologist.

A basket of sunscreen, sunglasses and SPF lip balm sits on my kitchen counter where anyone can grab what they need. I carry sunscreen with me everywhere I go, always wear a hat and sunglasses and avoid the peak hours of the sun when possible. 

I am now five years cancer free. I beat that less than 10 percent chance of surviving five years, but it wasn't without the blessing of a clinical trial for immunotherapy. As I was determining my course of action after surgery, my oncologist told me, "If you do nothing, you will die from this disease." Without the benefit of that trial, I would watch for the melanoma to return and hope we could stay ahead of it. 

After years of being out in the sun without sunscreen, I suspected I would get skin cancer at some point — the cut it out and you will be fine kind, like squamous cell or basal cell. But melanoma was a foreign word to me and I knew nothing of its deadly reach. 

Be smarter than I was in my youth. Protect your skin and check it on a regular basis.

Shelby Le Duc, USA TODAY NETWORK contributed to this article.