That old, weathered ball cap that’s endured the best of adventures and is likely worse for the wear is a time-honored look. Torn and worn, faded and, let’s face it, absolutely filthy, it speaks more to the brand of the angler than to any brand that might be scrawled above the lid. It’s a statement piece, meant to promote the person beneath it. But, if you want to fish well into retirement, it’s probably time to put it on a shelf, where it can still speak to your past adventures but stop leaving too much of your face and head exposed to the worst of the sun’s cancer-inducing ultraviolet rays.
A few years ago, I went to the dermatologist to have a little bump on my right ear looked at. I only did so because it hurt and wouldn’t heal. Because my ball caps don’t cover the tops of my ears, they’re almost always the first place I apply sunscreen. But I’m negligent in that department. My customary once-daily application is likely three applications too few. So when I arrived, the doctor took a device akin to a hole-punch and took a chunk out of my ear. A couple weeks later, the biopsy results came back negative. Bullet dodged. But the warning was received.
It’s estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. Every hour, two Americans die from skin cancer, and more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. It’s the most common form of cancer, and, while most people survive it, it can be deadly.
The root cause of most melanomas is prolonged sun exposure. A single sunburn may not be a harbinger of the disease, but five or more sunburns doubles the risk of acquiring melanoma. For anglers, particularly those who spend time on and in the water, the danger can be acute.
Danger from Above
The ball cap, while it might provide some protection for the angler’s face directly beneath the bill, is an inadequate deterrent. Throwing a face gaiter into the mix can help, but for many of us, especially in the summer or on prolonged visits to saltwater locales, these great little sun protectors are just too damned hot.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “hats should have a minimum 3-inch brim around the circumference or a minimum 3-inch bill with a permanently attached drape to cover the neck and ears.” Additionally, the SCF recommends hats be either dark or bright (not white or light-colored) and be made of tightly woven fabric.
“Dark or bright colors keep UV rays from reaching your skin by absorbing them rather than allowing them to penetrate,” the SCF says.
Fortunately, this is where style meets function. And where function meets protection. A wide-brimmed hat, from a simple Indiana Jones-type fedora to a floppy straw number that might conjure up images of an octogenarian tomato gardener, is likely the best option for days spent on the water. Yeah, you might think you look silly. But, in 20 years, you might still have most of your nose. And honestly, some of the options out there these days aren’t bad. Some, I dare say, are pretty stylish.
What Lurks Beneath
What’s more, while most of us understand that the sun hits us from above, many of us forget that water, particularly flat water, is reflective, and the sun’s rays get us from beneath, too. No hat in the world is going to completely block reflective rays coming from below, but a wide-brimmed hat will help disperse the UV.
“In terms of sun protection, a wide-brimmed hat is your best bet,” Jessica Wu, M.D., a Los Angeles-based dermatologist told How Stuff Works. “And the wider the brim, the better. A wide-brimmed hat will protect you from direct UV rays, as well as reflected rays from the water and sand.”
I’m as guilty — if not more so — as anyone else when it comes to failing to protect my face (and my arms and legs) from the sun. It’s not as if I don’t try, though. In recent years, I’ve become an ardent believer in the sun hoodie — lightweight synthetic shirts that cover the entire upper body and offer the option of a light hood to pull over the head when the sun is acutely bright. I wear the gaiter, too. And long, quick-dry fishing pants. And sunglasses — years ago, my ophthalmologist warned me that my eyes were in danger of damage because of the unblocked sunshine, and since then, I wear sunglasses outside almost all the time. It doesn’t really seem to matter what I do during fishing excursions that last a few days or longer. I still come off the water with racoon eyes and a lively burn.
And as noted, I’ve failed in the hat department. My sweat-stained collection of branded ball caps might be one that most would admire. But for me, the caps are utilitarian. The bill keeps the sun directly out of my eyes. The ball cap helps reduce the glare and helps me see where I’m casting and, if I’m lucky, what I’m casting toward. That’s why I, and I’d venture to say the vast majority of anglers, wear ball caps — not because we’re trying to protect our faces from the sun’s cancer-causing UV rays.
Serious sun protection? Not so much.
In recent years, I’ve taken to wearing a kitschy straw fedora during the summer. It’s not a terribly functional hat for anything other than daily wear, but it does cover the tops of my ears, my nod to the close call with the dermatologist.
But when fishing, I’ve yet to find the sweet spot in the Ven diagram where protection, comfort and function come together. Sadly, I often go with function and comfort and hope my face gaiter and sun hoodie fill in the gaps.
Genetically, I’m at risk. With family origins in the British Isles and continental western Europe, I can be classified as “hopelessly white.” And the sun has taken its toll over the years on my face, my arms and, yes, the tops of my hands. But the dermatologist — a man I now see often enough that we’re on a first-name basis — is most worried about the skin on face and ears. And I’m under strict orders to find a lid that really protects against the sun.
I know there are options — from light and floppy cloth hats to chic and stylish fedoras — that will do the trick. It’s a matter of prioritizing the protection and finding comfort and function as I go.
I’m off to south Florida for a quick retreat with friends next week, and I’m planning to fish the beach. My travel bag has several hats, gaiters and sun hoodies already packed — and, reluctantly, sunscreen. Hopefully, by the time I board the plane home, that little sweet spot will become evident, and I’ll have a better long-term plan to protect against an angling retirement that centers around precision surgical procedures and biopsy results.
Or maybe I’ll just start growing tomatoes.