One of the most recognizeable lines from country crooner Kenny Chesney explains that, aside from the fact that she thinks his tractor's sexy, she's also "kind of crazy about (his) farmer's tan."

Granted, tractors ARE often thought to be somewhat sexy around these parts, but for those who grew up in the south and southwest - both as kids who for years unwittingly endured the cycle of burning in the sun and losing several layers of epidermis - and for those of us spend much of our life of work and play outdoors, there's more to the story. A growing body of medical evidence suggests that the "farmer's tan" - or any other kind of tan, in excess, is better left to the imaginations of Nashville recording artists. 

Here at the virtual ground zero of the Sun Belt, where spring seems to be a fleeting concept - those brief three or four days that stretch between the cold and the blistering heat here on the High Plains, the reality is that most of us are heading for the outdoors in some fashion. Whether we're off to that sexy tractor or the back yard pool, we often do so without giving a thought to the ravages of the sun in a region that is rivaled only by Egypt, Sudan, and Chad as the sunniest places on earth.

Tempering our love affair with the sunny outdoors is the grim fact that the incidence of melanoma and other skin cancers are on the rise in the U.S. Globally, more than one million people will be diagnosed annually with a variety of skin cancers, most commonly basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, according to the American Cancer Society. The American Melanoma Foundation's own figures reveal that since 1992, cases of melanoma have increased 3.1% each year among non-hispanic caucasians, and even more so among young white women. The latter is, in part, due to the increasing popularity of tanning beds, but it's also a demographic that sees more than its share of outdoor sunbathers. 

Generally speaking, cancers of all kinds are caused by damage to the DNA, and Melanomas are usually caused by DNA alteration resulting from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. With damage on this level, a person who has experienced as few as five serious sunburns in his or her lifetime, even in childhood, effectively doubles his/her chance of developing a skin cancer as an adult - a call to vigilance for those with children. 

The good news is that, compared to other cancers, those affecting the skin are more treatable than most, if caught early. As the old saying goes, however, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Those with sensitive skin or who spend a large amount of their day outdoors should be aware of their preventative options. 

Of course, the most effective method of prevention is to limit exposure to sources of ultraviolet radiation. A good rule of thumb is to avoid the sun between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and spend more time enjoying those great West Texas sunrises and sunsets. A more creative way to put it is to try to spend most of your time outdoors when your shadow is taller than you are. Those who cannot make such lifestyle adjustments should wear protective clothing whenever possible, as most avid gardeners will attest, and don't forget the sunglasses and that wide-brimmed hat.

For those who place a high premium on the "farmer's tan", the "beachcomber's tan", et. al., prevention seems to be the source of some debate between scientists, medical professionals, and the tanning industry, which has focused much of its efforts for the last few decades in the area of controlling UV radiation exposure. Sunscreen appears to be effective in limiting sunburn, but some dermatologists question its effectiveness in controlling melanoma over the long term. Aside from that, the medical establishment is unequivocal - use it.
 

For those of us who are already using suncreen, the reality is that most of us are not using enough. Statistically, we use about one-third of the recommended amount with each application. At that rate, an SPF 30 product will only provide the protection of SPF 10. Children tend to be especially haphazard in applying them - a good case for parents' assistance whenever possible. the SPF (Sun Protection Factor) rating that most of us are familiar with by now is based on the protection that one ounce of the product can provide after a full body application. Even applied poorly, the higher that number, the better. The most effective product is currently rated at SPF 50.

More recently, manufactures of recreational clothing have given us another acronym to think about, UPF. The Ultraviolet Protection Factor relates to the effectivenss of the clothing to block UV radiation during outdoor activities. Most normal swimwear and other outdoor clothing provides an SPF of about 8 when wet. That is what sun protective clothing is designed to prevent. A garment with a UPF of 50 only allows 1/50th of the UV radiation to pass through it. It blocks 49/50ths, or 98%, of the UV radiation it is exposed to. 

A knowledgeable salesperson on your next shopping trip should be able to provide assistance in this area. That, of course, lessens the need for sunscreen, but a high SPF-rated sunscreen is still a must for all exposed areas of the body. 

For those of us wh have abused our skin the past, be aware of any changes in the color or appearance your skin, especially any changes or growth in mole structure. For women, the problem areas are most often found on the legs, while men most often find it on the back. See your doctor if you have any doubts.