You may recall this dramatic photo of William “Bill” McElligott, the Chicago truck driver whose face told the story of our skin’s relationship with the sun, from both sides.
When the New England Journal of Medicine posted the picture 10 years ago, it was suddenly hard for anyone to ignore the effects of sun damage. But how many of us have taken extra precautions since then?
For nearly 30 years, the left side of Mr. McElligott’s face was exposed to direct sunlight for up to eight hours a day as he drove around delivering milk to his customers around the city. When his grandchildren started asking about the bumps on his face, he decided to see a doctor.
The diagnosis for Bill’s condition was unilateral dermatoheliosis, also known as photoaging, which is caused by long-term exposure to the sun’s UVA rays. Over time, this can result in thickening of the skin (hyperkeratosis), open comedones (blackheads), loss of elasticity, and other symptoms known collectively as Favre-Racouchot syndrome.
The picture of a person whose face appeared to be two different ages got a lot of attention, but it was more than just a novelty; it was stark evidence of what the sun is actually doing to everyone’s skin, day in and day out.
For most of us, it’s only when we see a picture of ourselves from the past that we notice the changes. (Thank you, Facebook Memories). Even McElligott didn’t start to notice the changes until 15 years into his job. It’s the fine lines, small wrinkles and “age spots” that add the years to our faces and other areas we don’t tend to cover up.
Turns out, car windows aren’t much help, either. Aside from the windshield, most auto glass won’t protect us from UVA rays. The doctors who examined Mr. McElligott added that while his case is striking, uneven photoaging is not uncommon, especially in people who spend a lot of time in the car, such as traveling salespeople.
From a daily commute to a long road trip, who hasn’t spent a good amount of time on the sunny side of the car? As much as we love basking in that warm glow, we all know by now that the sun is bad for our skin.
Dr. Mitchell Chasin, a dermatologist told ABC News, “Most people who come in to have sun damage treated, they oftentimes will point to their left side saying they see more spots, more wrinkles, more aging, but never put two and two together."
The longer UVA rays do more in terms of long-term sun damage to deeper layers of the skin, including damage to our collagen and even our DNA (according to skincancer.org). Blue light emitted by the sun—not to mention the computer, phone, and TV screens we stare at every day—has also been shown to damage skin similar to UVA and UVB rays. (5)
So don’t skip the sunscreen in your morning routine. And do check the expiration dates of sunscreens and pay attention to the freshness of any skin care products you use, since active ingredients degrade over time. It's always a good idea to combine prevention with active skin repair and nourishment by using fresh, pure, preservative-free skin care products that also offer blue light protection.
While the one photo most people will ever see of Bill McElligott serves as a valuable reminder to protect ourselves from skin damage, we wanted to share another picture of the husband, father, White Sox fan and dog lover.
William E. “Bill” McElligott
February 13, 1946 - March 4, 2022