Seeing the light: how to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays

upshot of a cyclist wearing sunglasses for protection from sun

It’s the status symbol of summer: a deep, rich tan. But appearances aren’t always what they seem. While a tan may look good on the outside, it’s actually wreaking havoc on the inside. There are hidden dangers of too much sunshine — ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Where does ultraviolet (UV) radiation come from?

The vast majority of UV radiation exposure comes from sunlight. Emissions from the sun include visible light, heat and ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet radiation is divided into three regions based on their wavelength called UVA, UVB, and UVC.

What are the UV effects on the human body?

In small doses, there are some beneficial effects. Ultraviolet light is important in triggering vitamin D, which helps strengthen bones and muscles. It may also have some preventative effects on certain types of cancers — such as colon cancer. It is also useful in treating certain skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema.

What are the dangers of UV?

UV is harmful in that it can affect the immune system, the eyes, and the skin. Sun exposure is the primary culprit in all forms of skin cancer, which develop primarily on areas of sun-exposed skin — such as the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, and legs. 

How curable is skin cancer related to UV exposure?

Eighty percent of non-melanoma skin cancers are basal cell, while 20 percent are squamous cell. The good news is that these cancers are highly curable using fairly minor surgery or other types of local treatments. A third type of skin cancer — the deadliest — is melanoma. If melanoma is recognized and treated early, it is almost always curable. If it is not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes harder to treat and can be fatal.

What should individuals be on the lookout for when it comes to suspicious spots on their skin?

A tool that’s commonly used is called the ‘ABCDE of Melanoma:’

A – asymmetry: moles or lesions with irregular shapes, such as two very different-looking halves.
B – borders: moles or lesions with irregular borders
C – color: growths that have many colors or uneven distribution of color
D – diameter: greater than the size of a pencil eraser
E – evolution: a growth that changes in size or color over time

What are some other dangers of UV? 

UV is harmful in that it can affect the immune system, the eyes, and the skin. It can also suppress the function of white blood cells, which are important in preventing infections and in mounting an adequate response to vaccines. UV radiation exposure can cause an acute inflammatory reaction of the eye, otherwise known as sunburn of the eye. The effects are usually reversible in a few days and do not cause permanent damage. However, excessive and prolonged UV radiation exposure to the eye may cause corneal damage, cataracts, macular degeneration, and a condition known as pterygium (a fleshy growth on the surface of the eye).

Can you offer some tips for people to protect themselves?

Fortunately, there are a host of simple ways, including:

  1. Wear protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses.
  2. Use sunscreen, SPF 15 or higher.
  3. Seek out the shade.
  4. Limit time in the midday sun (10 AM to 4 PM).
  5. Use the reported UV index to plan measures to prevent overexposure.
  6. Avoid tanning beds.
  7. Protect children from harmful effects of the sun. UV exposure before 18 years of age significantly increases the risk of skin cancer in later life.

To learn more about ultraviolet radiation, visit our health library. To find a dermatologist, call 877-697-9355.