Ever since we’ve been young, we’ve been told to avoid staying out in the sun for too long. And even without this warning, we can actually feel the summer heat and how painful the ultraviolet rays of the sun could be. But is there really any danger to staying out in the sun without protection? Or is there a way to avoid its harmful effects? It’s time to find out.
What are Ultraviolet Rays?
Ultraviolet (UV) rays are naturally produced by very hot items, just like the sun. It is part of a family of radiations that are known as electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. They shine on our planet through heat and visible light. Almost 10 percent of the energy output of the sun is UV but despite this, only a small portion reaches us. It is our ozone layer and oxygen which absorbs most of the UV rays. Since they travel at the speed of light, humans are unable to see them. There are some animals, particularly among insects, that are able to see UV light and even possess body markings that are able to reflect these.
UVA vs UVB
There are two forms of harmful rays that make their way to the earth. These come as long wave ultraviolet A (UVA) and short wave ultraviolet B (UVB). Since short wave rays are absorbed by the ozone layer and oxygen, they don’t do much damage to us. But still, it can be potentially dangerous. UVA rays, on the other hand, can cause premature skin aging. Although UVA are less intense than UVB rays, they still are more prevalent and expose us to its effects.
Over the years, studies have shown that UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply compared to UVB rays. Exposure to UVA rays can damage the keratinocytes (skin cells) found on the basal layer of the epidermis. As a result of this, it could initiate the onset of skin cancers. At the same time, UVA can also cause individuals to get a tan. These rays can also be found from tanning booths where the use of high-pressure sunlamps are emitted. Over time, tanning can lead to cumulative damage; which is why it is not always good to get a tan.
Meanwhile, UVB is the main cause of sunburn and skin reddening. It damages the skin on its epidermal layers but still manages to have a role in the onset of skin cancer and photo-aging. The intensity of UVB rays vary according to location, season, and time of day. Despite this, it still manages to burn or damage skin through reflective surfaces.
Harmful Effects of UV Rays
The US Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization has classified UV radiation as a human carcinogen. This classification applies to both the sun’s UV rays and those from tanning beds. Knowing that the sun’s UV rays can be harmful to health, it is important to always be aware of its harmful effects so proper precaution can be practiced.
Here are some of the harmful effects of UV rays to the skin:
In the United States alone, patients diagnosed with skin cancer increase every year. In fact, it comprises a higher number of diagnosis compared to other types of cancers combined. But despite this, skin cancer can be detected early and cured. Among the most important signs of the condition is a spot on the skin that changes in shape, color, or size in just one month or two years. If you notice any unusual changes to your skin, it is best to seek the help of a health care professional right away. It might be a sign for a certain type of skin cancer such as:
- Melanoma – This is the most serious and most common type of skin cancer among those between 15-29 years old. While the risk factor for this disease is exposure to UV rays and sunburns, they can also be genetic and an immune system deficiency.
- Non-melanoma Skin Cancer – Compared to melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancer are less deadly. But despite this, it is still important to treat them as they can produce serious health problems.
Actinic Keratosis and Premature Skin Aging
Apart from skin cancer, there are other skin disorders that can arise from exposure to UV rays. These include actinic keratosis and premature skin aging. Actinic keratosis typically occur on body areas that are exposed to the sun a lot such as the face, hands, forearms, and the portion of the neck that forms a “V”. Although it is premalignant, they can lead to squamous cell carcinoma.
Premature skin aging can also be a chronic condition caused by sun exposure. While it gradually occurs, the condition makes the skin wrinkled, leathery and thick over time. And even though skin aging is unavoidable, it still is good to delay these symptoms as much as you can.
Immune System Suppression
Studies have discovered that overexposure to the radiation can suppress the body’s immune system and make it not function properly. As a result, the immune system gets weaker and will not be able to help in protecting against infections and cancers.
UV radiation has also been known to increase the onset of cataracts and other eye damages. Cataracts, while another common aging condition, can lead to blindness. Thanks to modern medicine, cataracts can easily be cured.
The other types of eye damages include pterygium (tissue growth that blocks vision), degeneration of macula (part of retina where visual perception is acute), and skin cancer around the eyes. By having the right protection, these conditions can be avoided.
Even though UV rays can be harmful to our skin, it is still important to our daily lives. Without knowing it, UV rays play a vital role in different areas in our life such as in astronomy, sterilization and disinfection, florescence and lighting. But apart from these, UV still has some good effects to the human body such as the following:
- Increases Vitamin D Production – When the skin is exposed to UVB, the production of vitamin D is stimulated. And as since vitamin D is responsible for strengthening the bones, muscles, and the immune system; the vitamin D from the sun’s rays can be a good help to the body. Vitamin D has also shown to help lower the risk of certain cancers such as colon cancer.
- Treats Certain Skin Conditions – Exposure to UV can also be helpful in treating certain skin conditions such as psoriasis. Since this condition leads the skin to shed its cells quickly and develop patches that are itchy and scaly, exposing the skin to UV can help alleviate the symptoms and slow down the growth of skin cells.
- Helps Moderate Moods – Studies have shown that sunlight is able to produce chemicals known as tryptamines in the pineal gland in the brain. These chemicals have been known to improve a person’s mood.
Protection Against UV Rays
While there are some benefits that can be obtained from the sun, it is still important to follow the proper protection so the harmful effects can be avoided. Here are some tips to follow so you can protect yourself from the radiation:
- Limit sun exposure between the hours of 10:00am and 4:00pm since these are the times when the sun’s rays are most intense.
- Use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day.
- If you are staying outdoors, go for a water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply every two hours.
- Cover up with clothing. Use UV-blocking sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat.
- Avoid tanning and UV tanning booths.
- Keep newborn babies out of the sun. They can also use sunscreen if they are over six months old.
- See your physician every year for a skin exam.
As they say, prevention is better than the cure. By doing everything necessary to avoid the sun’s harmful rays, you can avoid the onset of these skin conditions related with too much exposure to radiation.