If you’re at all concerned with your skin’s health and preventing skin cancer, you’ve probably heard of ultraviolet radiation before. But just how UV radiation works is often not the focus of skin cancer discussions, and that knowledge is an important factor in understanding how your skin reacts to sun damage.
Radiation can sound a bit strange, conjuring images of X-rays or the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But radiation is a simple scientific term to describe the emission of energy. Emitted energy, in this case in sunlight, is referred to as ultraviolet radiation, or UV rays. UV rays from the sun are not nearly as strong as the kind of radiation in medical imaging, so their effects often don’t go deeper than the skin. That’s still deep enough for them to cause skin cancer, however, and UV radiation isn’t only carried in sunlight. Tanning beds and other high intensity lights, as well as welding tools and other industrial equipment can give off UV radiation.
There are three main divisions of UV light. UVA light is the weakest of the UV spectrum, and while it can cause sun damage and skin cancer, it’s not the most likely culprit for most forms of skin cancer. Instead, UVA light often contributes to signs of aging like wrinkles and irregular pigmentation. UVC light is incredibly high energy, and it doesn’t make it through the earth’s atmosphere, thankfully. UVB light lies somewhere in between UVA and UVC, and is the main cause of skin cancer and sun damage like sunburns and actinic keratosis. UVB light damages the DNA in our skin cells, and it’s this damage that gives way to skin cancer. UVC rays don’t make it to the surface of the earth naturally, but there are technologies that can produce it, including welding torches and UV sanitizing bulbs.
Keeping your skin protected from UV light is crucial when it comes to preventing skin cancer. The two most common forms of skin cancer, squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma are overwhelmingly the direct result of exposure to sunlight. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer is also often caused by sun damage, though there are other factors that determine melanoma’s appearance. If you’ve gotten a sunburn, the temporary pain is the least of your worries. Skin cancer, while highly treatable if caught early, is still a real threat to your health. If skin cancer metastasizes and spreads to your internal organs, your odds of survival are far lower. So, although UV radiation doesn’t penetrate much deeper than the skin on its own, the cancer it causes can spread much further.
The best way to prevent sun damage and skin cancer is to protect your skin from sun damage, year round. Even in the winter months where sunlight feels rare, UV radiation is still abundant. Avoid direct sun exposure for long periods of time and always wear sunscreen. Many cosmetic products and makeup contain sunscreen. In the winter and fall, wear layers and cover your skin. Absolutely do not tan. This concentrated UV light from a tanning bed is incredibly dangerous and tanning is linked to skin cancer rates skyrocketing among younger people in the US. In the summer, avoid direct sunlight when possible and apply sunscreen every two hours. Find something with an SPF of 30 or higher. Wear clothing that has UPF, as a lot of thin, summery fabrics can still be penetrated by UV radiation. While UV radiation is inescapable, and outdoor recreation is a huge part of our lives, we can take steps to prevent sun damage caused by ultraviolet light.
The sun can pose a real threat to your health, and that’s all due to ultraviolet radiation. If you have more thoughts or questions on UV light and skin cancer, reach out to the skincare professionals at Northeast Dermatology Associates.
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