July Is UV Safety Month: Why it Matters
July 1, 2014
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To raise public awareness of the dangers of ultraviolet radiation (UV), July is UV Safety Month. Understanding what UV is and why it's dangerous will help you learn the importance of taking sensible precautions, especially for people who are training to be a healthcare professional.
What Is Ultraviolet Radiation?
The sun bombards the earth's surface with numerous types of radiation, some of which we see as visible light. Other forms we capture and convert into energy. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), one of these forms of radiation is ultraviolet (UV). A thin layer of ozone in the atmosphere blocks most UV, but some ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) breaks through, even on cloudy days.
UVA: This form can age skin cells and damage their DNA, causing long-term skin damage. They also play a role in the development of some skin cancers.
UVB: This form is the spectrum of light that helps us synthesize vitamin D, but it is also responsible for sunburn, and is thought to cause most types of skin cancer.
Both types of UV radiation are at their strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
How UV Radiation Damages your Body
Based on certain risk factors, the amount of your exposure and what protective measures you take, UV radiation's harmful effects can range from negligible to severe. Excessive exposure to UV radiation can damage several areas of the body, including your immune system. Its greatest threat, however, is to the skin and eyes. Everyone is vulnerable, but the ACS says people with the following traits and circumstances should take extra care:
- Fair complexion, and blonde or red hair
- Freckles or skin that is sensitive to sunlight
- Large numbers of moles
- Family or personal history of skin cancer
- Frequent use of tanning beds or lamps
- Early history of sunburns
- Heavy exposure to sunlight
- Taking medications that intensify the effects of sunlight
Your skin is the body's largest organ, and bears the brunt of UV radiation. In the short term, too much direct exposure to UVB causes sunburn. However, most negative effects come from cumulative exposure to both forms of UV, and can take years to manifest. Too much sun can cause skin to age prematurely, or develop skin cancer.
Melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer, especially if not detected early. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 61,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma every year.
If unprotected, your eyes can also be damaged by UV exposure. Directly linked to two major causes of blindness — cataracts and macular degeneration — UV radiation damages the eyes through conjunctival diseases and eyelid cancers, as well as intraocular melanoma.
How to Protect Yourself
Fortunately, you can reduce the sun's harmful effects to your skin and eyes by avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. But, if you must go outside:
- apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, every two hours, especially if you're swimming or in around water. Don't rely on waterproof products for sun protection.
- use UV-resistant sunglasses, preferably those that wrap around the entire eye area. Consider a broad-brimmed hat as well.
- thoroughly inspect yourself for any signs of new moles, or those that are irregular or changing. Ask your doctor if you have any suspicious marks that should be investigated further.
- keep in mind that high altitudes and reflective surfaces, such as concrete and beach sand, enhance the effects of UV radiation.
- be careful with your medications, which may increase your risks from UV, or lose their effectiveness in sunlight.
By sharing this information with your family and friends, and taking these precautions seriously, you can help make UV Safety Month a successful public education campaign. Everyone enjoys a healthy-looking tan, but ask yourself if the damage to your skin and eyes is worth it.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons