Ten years ago, a spot on my husband Casey’s neck grew darker and larger in a way that I noticed, my mother noticed, and even my best friend noticed. If you aren’t aware, changes in existing moles or birth marks are a big red flag and potential indicators of skin cancer.
Even though we were in the midst of an intense process of scaling up our farm, my husband took time to go to the doctor. It took a few visits and some incorrect diagnoses to get a biopsy. We eventually learned that he had an extremely fast-growing malignant melanoma — a skin cancer that is highly treatable when caught early but potentially deadly if it metastasizes. We had just had our second child and suddenly were faced with a very scary diagnosis.
That fall, Casey had surgery to remove a safe margin of skin from his neck, along with nearby lymph nodes. Between parenting two young children and expanding our farm, it was a wild time for our family. Thankfully, he has remained cancer-free since.
We will never know exactly how much our sun-soaked farming lifestyle (and Casey’s years of surfing) contributed to his melanoma. But from then on, Casey and I have become very conscious of how much time we farmers spend in the sun working outside year-round. We can’t change the decisions about the sun before the melanoma, but we can change our actions going forward.
I’ll share that awareness with you, explain why sun-exposure matters, and provide guides for taking care of your skin (while still getting important farming work done). In addition to official sources, I also gathered tips from several farmers via social media and a listserv discussion. Some of my research surprised even me, so I encourage you to read to the end even if you think you’re already well-informed about sun and skin protection.
Farmers and the sun
The sun’s light fuels photosynthesis in our crops. But sunlight also contains UV rays, shorter rays of energy invisible to the eye that can break down surfaces. As a farmer, I’m sure you’ve watched UV-damage in action: inexpensive tarps that degrade quickly in the sun or ball caps that fade and then fray.
Much of the plastic materials we use as produce totes or greenhouse poly have been specifically formulated to hold up even under the damaging rays of the sun. Now, picture your skin and how much time you spend in that same sun as a farmer. The sun’s UV rays are acting on unprotected skin, potentially causing painful sun burns in the short-run and rapid aging or skin cancer in the long-run.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are three main types of skin cancer, each originating in different parts of the skin. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common types of skin cancer and usually easy to treat. Melanoma is the third most common and causes the most deaths because of its higher risk of moving into other organs in the body.
Farmers’ outdoor work and high levels of exposure to the sun and UV rays present a known risk factor for developing skin cancer. The research data back this up. Researchers found that farmers in Darling Downs in Queensland had 2.65 times the rate of non-melanoma skin cancers than the general population, according to a study published in Rural and Remote Health in 2021. This is in an agricultural region that already has the highest rate of skin cancer in Australia.
Here's the author and her husband in their skin protection outfits.
The good news is that the Darling Downs farmers did not have a higher rate of melanomas. Yet, researchers studying agricultural workers in six countries found that women did have a slightly higher rate of melanoma than the general population, according to a 2021 paper in Environment International. So, I don’t think it’s safe to rule out a connection between our environmental conditions as farmers and the risk of all kinds of skin cancers.
Given farmers’ UV-exposure levels, it behooves all agricultural workers to be mindful of their skin and the sun, especially if they have any additional risk factors for developing skin cancer. The CDC identifies these risk factors as lighter natural skin color, skin that burns easily, blue or green eyes, blond or red hair, presence of moles, a personal or family history of skin cancer, and being older.
Casey and I both fall into that higher risk category on multiple points, as do many of the farmers who shared tips and experiences with me. For working farmers, not just any protective clothing will do because there’s a need to balance efficacy at blocking UV rays with personal comfort and affordability.
Several farmers reported buying clothing brands specifically designed for sun wear that are lighter and have hoods and neck gaiters built in. Others prefer shopping at thrift stores, finding items such as tightly woven button-down shirts with collars that can be turned up around the neck.
The Skin Cancer Foundation says both options can work. They offered a few tips when choosing sun safe clothing, including checking the UPF claim. This is a rating of how much UV radiation can penetrate the fabric and reach the skin. A UPF of 30 to 49 is considered very good, and 50+ is excellent.
However, you don’t need officially UPF-rated clothing to protect yourself, and the Skin Cancer Foundation offers some basic guidelines that can be helpful whether you’re shopping from a specialty workwear supplier or second-hand store. First, darker colors block more UV-radiation than lighter colors.
Densely woven materials such as denim or synthetic fibers offer more protection than looser weaves or knits. You can check this by simply holding a garment up to the light and literally seeing how much light comes through. Even though UV rays are not visible to the eye, this simple check provides a good indicator of how much the sun can penetrate your garments.
Think about if there are jobs that can be situated under cover instead of in the sun, like wash and pack stations or this sowing shed.
Shiny polyesters and other smooth fabrics can also reflect more light. While these kinds of materials can be less breathable, I’ve observed that many polyester-based workwear and sun-blocking shirts are made with special mesh panels in strategic locations to increase comfort.
Warning: if you love wearing white T-shirts, think again. The Skin Cancer Foundation rates these with a very low UPF of 7, and when they get wet (with sweat or irrigation water) the rating goes down to 3. In contrast, a dark denim garment can offer a UPF of 1,700.
Fit of the garment matters, too. You’ll want to choose items with the most coverage: sleeves, collars, neck gaiters, or hoods to protect the neck, and shirts long enough to avoid the farmer tan line that can develop on the lower back from exposing a stretch of skin between shirt and pants when bending over. A friend of mine calls this tan line the “fertile crescent.” Also, looser fitting garments shade your body better than garments that sit tightly on the skin.
As a plus, wearing long sleeves and gloves can also help prevent exposure to irritating chemicals found in some weeds and plants, such as the compounds in parsnip and celery that cause extreme photosensitivity and can lead to painful blisters. I learned this the hard way when first farming.
Having a hat with a deep brim and tight weave or solid fabric is also very important for protecting the face, ears, and neck — locations which, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, are very common for skin cancers to develop. Remember that clothing and hats wear out over time, so periodically check to make sure they are still as opaque and UV-blocking by holding them up to the light.
Finally, the Skin Cancer Foundation also recommends wearing UV-blocking sunglasses. Not only can sunglasses prevent skin cancer in and around the eye, they can also help prevent other sun-related eye injuries, such as the development of a pinguecula growth (something one farmer reported experiencing in a past summer).
Won’t I get hot?
If you aren’t already committed to covering your skin with clothing, you might wonder how it could be comfortable to work on a hot summer day dressed so protectively. The heat factor is an important reason to experiment with different clothing options to find what works best for your body and your climate.
Also, the potential for over-heating is an issue on a farm in the summer in general. Several farmers shared stories of people suffering heat-related injuries, such as heat stroke and exhaustion, due to over-exposure and lack of hydration.
These incidents caused them to change farm habits and increase attention to education and hydration. Several farmers said that they stock different kinds of electrolytes in break areas, provide plenty of water, and even set up misters and cold dunk tubs on especially hot days. Scheduling more intense physical activity for the cooler parts of the day whenever possible is also an important part of avoiding heat injuries.
Keep in mind that strong sun directly hitting skin can also be quite hot, so by wearing protective clothing, we are often simply trading one kind of heat for another. Sunburns are also very hot feeling and uncomfortable.
Sunscreen for exposed skin
Even after donning as much sun-protective clothing you can, it’s likely you’ll still have a few areas of skin that are exposed to the sun. Even hats can’t offer full protection to the face because of how UV rays reflect back from surfaces. So, the CDC and the Skin Cancer Foundation recommend applying sunscreen to uncovered skin.
My husband Casey applies it daily to his face, neck, ears and back of hands and wrists. But, according to a 2019 paper in Prevent Chronic Disease about U.S. agricultural and construction workers’ skin cancer prevention behaviors, it’s statistically likely that you as a farmer already wear some sun-protective clothing (70.9 percent reported doing so) and statistically less likely that you wear sunscreen (only 15.1 percent reported doing so).
The author installed this shade on her tractor to protect the driver from sun exposure.
If you fall into that category, too, I hear you. Sunscreen can feel gross to the touch and can be confusing to buy. But it can also be an important part of protecting your skin from burns and long-term damage. Here’s what I’ve learned about different types of sunscreens and how to use them effectively. Also, many brands are now making sunscreen in solid stick form (like deodorant), which can feel less greasy if that’s an issue for you.
There are two main types of sunscreen: mineral and chemical. Mineral sunscreens are ones you’ll recognize from the white look on the skin. This whiteness comes from the main active ingredient minerals: titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which work to physically block and scatter UV rays. In contrast, chemical sunscreens contain a wide array of potential compounds that absorb UV rays.
While chemical sunscreens are often more aesthetically pleasing (no white pallor), they also are more likely to contain ingredients that have known threats to marine life, especially coral reefs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a list of sunscreen chemicals known to harm marine life. Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common active ingredients in chemical sunscreens.
Thankfully, there are many sunscreens that don’t contain these ingredients, including many mineral sunscreens, the type we use on our farm. Also, manufacturers developed mineral sunscreens that go on smoothly with less visible lightening.
Some mineral sunscreens even add a very small amount of pigment, like a cosmetic foundation. This might not seem important to you in the fields, but if you’re moving between fields and restaurant sales and market day, a quality sunscreen that is effective, easy to apply, and doesn’t look funny is a worthwhile investment. (See the sidebar for sunscreens recommended by farmers.)
Make sure your sunscreen is labeled as “broad-spectrum protection,” protecting against both UVA and UVB rays. You’ll also want to check the sunscreen’s rated SPF, the “sun protection factor,” which indicates how much protection is offered compared to no sunscreen at all. An SPF of 30 means that if a sunscreen is used properly it would take 30 times longer for the skin to redden than without its use.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends wearing a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher for extended outdoor exposure. They also recommend reapplying every two hours throughout the day, an important part of the correct use piece of the puzzle. Incorporating sunscreen application into work and water breaks is a great strategy used by many farmers. This means remembering to have your sunscreen nearby throughout the day.
Remember to finish your protection with an SPF-rated lip balm. One farmer told me that he has also had a melanoma treated successfully in 2016. Since then he has continued to have skin checks and has had several pre-cancerous spots removed, mostly around his mouth and other areas harder to protect with clothing.
Sun safety for the whole farm
Clothing and appropriate sunscreen use are the most important steps an individual can take to protect their skin from the sun. There are also steps a farm as a whole can take to help reduce the risk for everyone.
First, encourage your employees to take the same precautions by providing information and setting an example with your own habits. When we had employees on our farm, we built sun safety information into our printed employee materials and offered our clothing and habit recommendations during new employee orientations.
Several farmers keep sunscreen stocked in large bottles in the break area to make application easier for all workers. Others keep extra hats, gloves and long-sleeved shirts available to workers who forget them. Make it easy to support healthy skin habits on the farm.
You can also be conscientious about offering as much shade as possible. It is not always easy to provide shade in an outdoor location where sun is important to crops’ growth, but there are many places where shade is easy to provide.
The first is on your tractor. Do you have a solid canopy to shade your tractor drivers? If not, see how you might buy or build one on to your roll-bar. I’d also look into building shade structures for any other implements people ride, such as mechanical transplanters. In some hot regions or seasons, some soft-skinned crops and high tunnel crops benefit from shade cloth cover, which also help with worker protection.
Assess all non-field spaces on your farm and consider where you might add shade: over packing stations and other infrastructure where workers might be washing, packing, sowing seeds, potting plants and taking breaks. All of these activities can be done in deep shade, providing workers a respite from both the sun and the heat. One farmer pointed out that offering extra shade around wash stations, or other areas with highly reflective metal surfaces, can also help prevent ocular migraines.
You might also consider setting up portable shade structures in the fields where workers taking a quick break for water between tasks can do so out of the sun. Ultimately, offer yourself and your employees every moment of shade possible during your work days.
You can also consider the UV-index forecast when planning your days. The intensity of UV rays varies from place to place based on weather and time of day. While UV protection is important even on cloudy and cool days, the CDC says that UV rays are most intense on sunny days from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daylight savings time. Scheduling field work for the mornings or evenings can be a way to further reduce UV ray exposure for everyone.
Skin cancer warning signs
The final step in taking care of your skin is knowing and watching for cancer warning signs. This is especially important if you have any of the higher risk factors I listed above.
The main thing to watch for are any changes in the skin, according to the CDC. This requires familiarity with your skin by looking yourself over regularly (especially face, neck and hands) and possibly even having your primary care doctor map your moles to help document potential changes.
For melanomas specifically, the CDC recommends the “A-B-C-D-Es” as a guideline for spotting potentially problematic skin changes. Those are: Asymmetrical mole or spot shapes, Borders that are irregular or jagged, Color that is uneven, Diameter larger than a pea, and Evolving or changing in a few weeks or months. All these warning signs were present for Casey’s melanoma, which is how we caught it at a time when we weren’t yet particularly skin conscious.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the many layers of sustainability. When Casey and I were young new farmers, I mostly thought in terms of ecological impact and our financial viability. But now in my 40s, I realize that taking care of our bodies (and those of farm workers) is also a critical component of making sure a farm can continue operating over the long-term.
In that spirit, I hope that you will take some time to assess your clothing and routines and consider what changes you might make. Then, I encourage you to make those changes a regular habit. After that, don’t spend too much energy worrying about it. Take care of yourself and your workers so that you can all continue to enjoy farming and feel truly grateful for the magical power of the sun.
Katie Kulla lives and farms with her family in Yamhill County, Oregon. You can find Katie at KatieKulla.com and on Instagram: @katiekulla.