Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation

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Does UV radiation cause cancer?

Yes. In fact, most skin cancers are a direct result of exposure to the UV rays in sunlight. Both basal cell and squamous cell cancers (the most common types of skin cancer) tend to be found on sun-exposed parts of the body, and their occurrence is typically related to lifetime sun exposure. The risk of melanoma, a more serious but less common type of skin cancer, is also related to sun exposure, although perhaps not as strongly. Skin cancer has also been linked to exposure to some artificial sources of UV rays.

Studies in people

Sun exposure

Basal and squamous cell skin cancer: Many observational studies have found that basal and squamous cell skin cancers are linked to certain behaviors that put people in the sun, as well as a number of markers of sun exposure, such as:

  • Spending time in the sun for recreation (including going to the beach)
  • Spending a lot of time in the sun in a swimsuit
  • Living in an area with a high amount of sun
  • Having had serious sunburns in the past (with more sunburns linked to a higher risk)
  • Having signs of sun damage to the skin, such as liver spots, actinic keratoses (rough skin patches that can be precancerous), and solar elastosis (thickened, dry, wrinkled skin caused by sun exposure) on the neck

Melanoma: Observational studies have also found links between certain behaviors and markers of sun exposure and melanoma of the skin, including:

  • Activities that lead to “intermittent sun exposure,” like sunbathing, water sports, and taking vacations in sunny places
  • Previous sunburns
  • Signs of sun damage to the skin, such as liver spots, actinic keratoses, and solar elastosis

Other cancers: Because UV radiation does not penetrate deeply into the body, it would not be expected to cause cancer in internal organs, and most research has not found such links. However, some studies have shown possible links to some other cancers, including:

Artificial sources of UV rays

Indoor tanning: Studies have found that people who use tanning beds (or booths) have a higher risk of skin cancer, including melanoma and squamous and basal cell skin cancers. The risk of melanoma is higher if the person started indoor tanning before age 30 or 35, and the risk of basal and squamous cell skin cancer is higher if indoor tanning started before age 20 or 25.

Welding and metal work: Some studies have suggested that welders and sheet metal workers might have a higher risk of melanoma of the eye.

Phototherapy: People exposed to UVA as a treatment for skin conditions such as psoriasis (as a part of PUVA therapy) have an increased risk of squamous cell skin cancers.

Treatment of skin conditions with UVB alone (not combined with PUVA) has not been linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Studies in the lab

Studies of cells

Studies of cells in lab dishes and test tubes have shown that sunlight and simulated sunlight (for example, from xenon or xenon-mercury arc lamps) can cause DNA damage (mutations).

Studies in animals

Exposure of mice, rats, and some other lab animals to sunlight and artificial sources of UV rays has been shown to lead to skin cancers. Most of these cancers have been squamous cell carcinomas. Some exposed animals have also developed cancers of the eye (affecting the cornea and conjunctiva).

No type of UV radiation has been shown to be safe – cancers have developed after exposure to UVA (alone), UVB (alone), and UVC (alone).

What expert agencies say

Several national and international agencies study different substances in the environment to determine if they can cause cancer. (A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer grow is called a carcinogen.) The American Cancer Society looks to these organizations to evaluate the risks based on evidence from laboratory, animal, and human research studies.

Based on animal and human evidence like the examples above, several expert agencies have evaluated the cancer-causing nature of UV radiation.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its major goal is to identify causes of cancer. Based on the data available, IARC classifies UV radiation as “carcinogenic to humans.”

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is formed from parts of several different US government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The NTP has classified UV radiation as “known to be a human carcinogen.”

(For more information on the classification systems used by these agencies, see Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.)

What about tanning beds?

Some people think that getting UV rays from tanning beds is a safe way to get a tan, but this isn’t true.

IARC classifies the use of UV-emitting tanning devices as “carcinogenic to humans.” This includes sunlamps and sunbeds (tanning beds).

The NTP has stated that exposure to sunlamps or sunbeds is “known to be a human carcinogen.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which now refers to all UV lamps used for tanning as “sunlamps,” requires them to carry a label that states, “Attention: This sunlamp product should not be used on persons under the age of 18 years.” The FDA also requires that user instructions and sales materials directed at consumers (including catalogs, specification sheets, descriptive brochures, and webpages) carry the following statements:

  • Contraindication: This product is contraindicated for use on persons under the age of 18 years.
  • Contraindication: This product must not be used if skin lesions or open wounds are present.
  • Warning: This product should not be used on individuals who have had skin cancer or have a family history of skin cancer.
  • Warning: Persons repeatedly exposed to UV radiation should be regularly evaluated for skin cancer.

Last Medical Review: 08/12/2015
Last Revised: 08/12/2015