Skin Cancer Awareness Month is all about delivering crucial information to the public regarding the prevention, detection, and treatment of skin cancer. As such, it is imperative for organizations to discuss the leading causes of skin cancer, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation stands atop this list of skin cancer risk factors. While most of us have heard of UV radiation before, many people don’t know much about it or why it has anything to do with skin cancer in the first place. So, in honor of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, let’s take some time to go over what UV radiation is, where it comes from, how it affects us, and what we can do about it.
We tend to associate the term radiation with x-ray exams and nuclear explosions. However, radiation simply refers to any emission of energy. Nuclear radiation, for instance, refers to the transmission of energy from a nuclear source. UV radiation, then, is simply the emission of UV energy, a form of electromagnetic energy. UV radiation is characterized by its specific frequency (energy output) and exists in the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum, more energetic than visible light but less so than X-rays.
UV radiation contains a spectrum of its own, too. Within the umbrella of UV radiation are three major types of UV rays with different energy levels and wavelengths (in nanometers (nm)): UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVA rays are the least energetic (ranging from 315- 399 nm) while UVC rays yield the highest energy levels (100-279 nm), and UVB rays rest in between (280-314 nm). When it comes to skin cancer awareness, UVA and UVB rays are the most notable, as most individuals rarely encounter UVC radiation in everyday life.
Ultraviolet radiation primarily comes from the sun, though advancements in technology have made UV radiation available via other means, such as tanning beds, special bulbs, welding torches, and more. It’s also worth noting that UV radiation isn’t the only type of energy released from sunlight. Additionally, the vast majority (about 95%) of the sun’s UV rays that reach us are UVA rays, and 5% or so are UVB rays. As for UVC rays, these high energy rays don’t naturally reach the earth’s surface, as they are entirely absorbed by the atmosphere and ozone layer.
Our bodies interact with all kinds of energy. The more powerful said energy, though, the more of an effect it has on us. This is why we’re warned about nuclear fallout and given protective shields when undergoing X-ray exams. In small, contained doses, UV rays are relatively harmless, and UV radiation can even help increase Vitamin D production and be used to treat various skin conditions. However, when skin cells are exposed to excessive amounts of UV light, they can become damaged, sometimes down to their very DNA. Even a moderate tan counts as sun damaged skin and indicates an increased risk of skin cancer.
Generally speaking, UVA rays, which don’t penetrate too deep into the skin, primarily contribute to minor sun damage and premature aging (wrinkles, spots), though these rays can contribute to some forms of skin cancer. UVB rays, on the other hand, seep deeper into one’s skin, causing sunburn and leading to the most cases of skin cancer.
In short, ultraviolet radiation is a form of energy that occurs via natural and man-made means that can damage one’s skin in various ways when overexposed and contribute to various types of skin cancer. Fortunately, reducing one’s exposure to UV radiation is relatively simple. While we cannot (nor would we want to) turn off the sun, we can protect our skin from its rays by wearing sunscreen (at least 30 SPF) and protective clothing, limiting our time outside, and staying in the shade when possible. Additionally, dermatologists recommend avoiding tanning beds/booths and other UV sources, such as mercury-vapor and black-light lamps.
Premier Dermatology Partners is happy to educate our patients and the public about UV radiation, skin cancer, and other skin-related health concerns. To learn more about our providers and all the services we offer, contact us today.