The month of July brings us another reminder to raise awareness for the damaging effects the sun can have on our skin. It’s UV Awareness Month and we’re breaking down the different types of UV rays, how they affect skin and steps to stay safe and protect your skin from photoaging, skin cancer and other risks.
Many people don’t realize ultraviolet rays are a form of radiation. The main source of UV radiation is the sun, but it can also be emitted from manmade sources like tanning beds and welding torches. The radiation spectrum ranges from very high energy, such as x-rays and gamma rays, to very low energy, such as radio waves. UV rays have more energy than visible light, but not as much energy as x-rays.
The sun emits three types of radiation, called UVA, UVB, and UVC. The ozone layer in Earth’s stratosphere blocks all UVC light, but UVB and UVA light reach the surface of the Earth. UVA rays are slightly longer than UVB, and penetrate deeper into the skin’s layers, which ultimately leads to skin aging and wrinkles. Scientific studies over the past two decades have shown that UVA radiation damages skin cells in the basal layer of the epidermis, where the majority of skin cancers occur. Indoor tanning beds primarily emit UVA. The high-pressure sunlamps used in tanning salons emit nearly 12 times the amount UVA as that of the sun, chiefly due to the proximity of the skin to the radiation source.
On the other hand, UVB is the type of radiation that causes reddening of the skin and sunburns. UVB tends to damage the skin's most superficial epidermal layers. Recently, indoor tanning beds with only UVB rays are increasing in popularity and are being marketed as a healthy alternative to mainstream beds. Don’t be fooled -- while the rays from a UVB bed will penetrate less deeply into the skin, unprotected exposure to these rays can lead to premature aging of the skin. Those who regularly tan in UVB beds will start to see wrinkles sooner, as the rays can cause damage to the collagen and elastin fibers in the skin. UVB layers may not reach the dermis, but overexposure can cause sunburn and recurring sunburns is the number one contributor to skin cancers, including melanoma.
Exposure to both UVA and UVB are associated with the development of skin cancer, so it’s important to protect the skin during exposure to sunlight. Here’s how you can stay safe in the sun:
- Wear protective clothing to block UV light. A wide brimmed hat (or any hat), as well as shade-protective clothing will help shield the skin from the harmful effects of UV ray exposure.
- Stay in the shade when UV radiation is the most intense (between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.). Keep in mind the sun can still damage the skin on cloudy days or in the winter, so year-round protection is imperative. Always use caution when near reflective surfaces like water, snow and sand, which can reflect the damaging rays of the sun, increasing the chances of sunburn. Higher altitudes that have less atmosphere to absorb UV radiation can also cause an increase in sun exposure.
- Choose the right sunscreen and apply it correctly. Our aestheticians recommend an SPF 30 or higher, and it should protect against both UVA and UVB rays. When you’re out in the sun, apply at least one ounce of sunscreen every two hours.
- Steer clear of tanning beds and other sources of artificial UV light. Indoor tanning significantly increases the risk of developing melanoma and basal and squamous cell cancers. It also leads to premature aging and even suppresses the immune system. Stick to a high-quality self tanner or a spray tan to keep your skin healthy and bronzed.