What Is Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation?
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a major risk factor for most skin cancers. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays. Tanning lamps and beds are also sources of UV rays. People who get a lot of UV exposure from these sources are at greater risk for skin cancer.
Even though UV rays make up only a very small portion of the sun’s rays, they are the main cause of the sun’s damaging effects on the skin. UV rays damage the DNA of skin cells. Skin cancers start when this damage affects the DNA of genes that control skin cell growth.
There are 3 main types of UV rays:
- UVA rays age skin cells and can damage their DNA. These rays are linked to long-term skin damage such as wrinkles, but they are also thought to play a role in some skin cancers. Most tanning beds give off large amounts of UVA, which has been found to increase skin cancer risk.
- UVB rays have slightly more energy than UVA rays. They can damage skin cells’ DNA directly, and are the main rays that cause sunburns. They are also thought to cause most skin cancers.
- UVC rays have more energy than the other types of UV rays, but they don’t get through our atmosphere and are not in sunlight. They are not normally a cause of skin cancer.
Both UVA and UVB rays can damage skin and cause skin cancer. UVB rays are a more potent cause of at least some skin cancers, but based on what’s known today, there are no safe UV rays.
The strength of the UV rays reaching the ground depends on a number of factors, such as:
- Time of day: UV rays are strongest between 10 am and 4 pm.
- Season of the year: UV rays are stronger during spring and summer months. This is less of a factor near the equator.
- Distance from the equator (latitude): UV exposure goes down as you get further from the equator.
- Altitude: More UV rays reach the ground at higher elevations.
- Cloud cover: The effect of clouds can vary. Sometimes cloud cover blocks some UV from the sun and lowers UV exposure, while some types of clouds can reflect UV and can increase UV exposure. What is important to know is that UV rays can get through, even on a cloudy day.
- Reflection off surfaces: UV rays can bounce off surfaces like water, sand, snow, pavement, or grass, leading to an increase in UV exposure.
The amount of UV exposure a person gets depends on the strength of the rays, the length of time the skin is exposed, and whether the skin is protected with clothing or sunscreen.
People who live in areas with year-round, bright sunlight have a higher risk of skin cancer. Spending a lot of time outdoors for work or recreation without protective clothing and sunscreen increases your risk.
The pattern of exposure may also be important. For example, frequent sunburns in childhood may increase the risk for some types of skin cancer many years or even decades later.
Skin cancers are one result of getting too much sun, but there are other effects as well. Sunburn and tanning are the short-term results of too much exposure to UV rays, and are signs of skin damage. Long-term exposure can cause early skin aging, wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, dark patches (lentigos, sometimes called age spots or liver spots), and pre-cancerous skin changes (such as dry, scaly, rough patches called actinic keratosis).
The sun’s UV rays increase a person’s risk of cataracts and certain other eye problems, too. They can also suppress the skin’s immune system. Darker-skinned people are generally less likely to get skin cancer than light-skinned people, but they can still get cataracts and immune suppression.
The UV Index
As noted above, the amount of UV light reaching the ground in any given place depends on a number of factors, including the time of day, time of year, elevation, and cloud cover. To help people better understand the strength of UV light in their area on a given day, the National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have developed the UV Index. It gives people an idea of how strong the UV light is in their area, on a scale from 1 to 11+. A higher number means greater risk of exposure to UV rays and a higher chance of sunburn and skin damage that could ultimately lead to skin cancer.
The UV Index is given daily for regions throughout the country. Many newspaper, television, online, and smartphone weather forecasts include the projected UV Index. Further information about the UV Index, as well as your local UV Index forecast, can be found on the EPA’s website at www.epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html. Smartphone apps are available from the EPA at www.epa.gov/enviro/mobile. As with any forecast, local changes in cloud cover and other factors could change the actual UV levels experienced.
Last Medical Review: March 19, 2015 Last Revised: July 26, 2016
- Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
- What Is Skin Cancer?
- What Is Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation?
- Are Some People More Likely to Get Skin Damage from the Sun?
- How Do I Protect Myself from UV Rays?
- What About Tanning Pills and Other Tanning Products?
- Skin Exams
- What Should I Look for on a Skin Self-Exam?
- What If I Find Something Suspicious on a Skin Exam?
- Additional Resources
- References: Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection