Your Seatbelt Isn't the Only Thing You Should Be Putting On in the Car This Summer

06/19/2014 12:37 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2014


The scorching summer sun is beating down on folks across the country, and we are all at risk for harmful UV radiation in one unsuspecting location that you probably always thought provided a domain of safety. Most people already know that keeping sunscreen applied and wearing protective sunglasses can prevent serious health problems from forming down the road for you and your family, whether you're at the beach with your family, going for an afternoon jog or just having a nice picnic in the park.

What will likely surprise you is that behind the car windows -- people's fortress of solitude, where millions of drivers feel comfortable applying makeup, shaving, eating, sipping lattes and numerous other strange activities -- affords little protection from the sun. Yes, the front windshield provides great protection, usually shielding you and your passengers from 96 percent of the radiation hitting your car on any given day. However, I recently discovered that the side windows of many popular vehicles only provide an average of 71 percent protection -- a startling low figure that poses long-term UV risk even to children riding in the car. UV exposure is cumulative over a lifetime, like most other diseases. If you are a parent and are aware that children having junk food for breakfast, lunch and dinner is not healthy for the long-term, then being aware of their UV exposure in the car is no different.

This car-window-UV-revelation came after stumbling upon a 2010 study that found that skin cancer including melanoma occurs much more frequently on the left side of the face and body than the right. As an ophthalmologist, I know that cataracts also form more often in the left eye than the right. While I pondered this correlation and the fact that UV radiation is one of the main causes of both skin cancer and cataracts, it suddenly struck me that perhaps during our seemingly-endless daily commutes and summer road trips that the left side of our body is being exposed to much higher levels of radiation that the right.

Armed with a portable UV reader, my inquisitive 8-year-old daughter and I spent a sweat-dripping-down-our-foreheads afternoon trudging across several car dealerships in Los Angeles testing how much radiation was getting through over 30 different cars' side and front windows. The car salespeople were very accommodating, and I think it was because we weren't "kicking the tires," as they say. We tested various makes and models from a range of different years of production. What we found was unanticipated, as some of the most expensive models unexpectedly provided the lowest protection of all the cars tested. For instance, one high-end model with factory tinting only blocked 55 percent of the radiation coming through the side window despite excellent front windshield protection.

As a frequent commuter and lover of the road (admittedly, I'm a 1970s muscle car fan), I knew that I had to make a few changes to stay safe. I've compiled four key tips that I now follow in the hopes that you'll remember that a seatbelt isn't the only thing you should be putting on in the car this summer:

1. Put on sunscreen for driving! I recommend putting on no less than SPF 30 and reapplying it every two hours should you have a long drive ahead of you. Make sure to apply it 15 minutes before getting into the car, and even consider making application a part of your daily routine. I also advise using a lotion as opposed to a spray because it's easier to make sure you haven't missed any hard-to-reach spots on your skin. Using a spray in the car can also get a little messy, too! No one is fond of a sticky steering wheel.

2. Put on wrap-around sunglasses! A great rule of thumb to remember when thinking about sunglasses is that more expensive does not equal better, and usually the most fashionable styles may not provide the best protection. By wearing large wrap-around sunglasses, you're blocking the radiation from getting in through the sides of the glasses which can eventually cause cataracts, wrinkles, sun spots or even cancer. Don't forget to only wear sunglasses that clearly state they have 100 percent UV protection. Kids need to protect their eyes with sunglasses too. I battled with one of my daughters on this point, but thankfully Dad prevailed!

3. Put on a clear UV film (... on your car's side windows, that is)! Apply a clear UV film to the side windows of your car as most do not provide good protection from UV radiation. Front windshields of all cars have excellent UV protection due to the UV-blocking clear plastic film that is wedged between the two sheets of glasses that make your windshield shatter-proof. In other words, you do not need to worry about the windshield. By using a clear UV film, you won't run the risk of getting a ticket for illegal tinting. Remember that just because your car comes with factory tinting doesn't mean that it's actually doing a good job of protecting you from the sun. If your windows are already tinted, consider applying an additional clear UV film to be certain. That clear UV film might save you piles of money years from now by avoiding cosmetic skin treatments like IPL and chemical peels for skin pummeled by the sun!

4. Have a super summer!

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