The Difference Between UVA, UVB, and UVC Rays And How to Protect Yourself

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little girl in sunglasses on the beach

We all know that the sun emits ultraviolet, or UV, rays, but did you know that these can be classified into three different types?

Here are some of the main differences between UVA, UVB and UVC rays, as well as a few ways in which you can protect yourself against all three.

Radiation from the Sun

The sun actually emits a few different types of radiation.

The first is sunlight, which you can not only see, but also feel, in the form of heat.

The second is infrared radiation, which, again, can be felt in the form of heat.

Finally, there is UV radiation, which cannot be seen or felt, but which can cause quite a bit of damage to your health, in a number of different ways.

UVA Rays

Let’s begin with UVA rays, since these account for 95% of the UV radiation that reaches the surface of the earth.

UVA rays are the ones that cause premature skin aging, and since they are able to penetrate deep into your skin, they do end up causing some DNA damage. UVA rays are extremely powerful, and can even penetrate through thick cloud or glass windows, meaning that protection against them is needed everyday throughout the year, no matter what the weather may be like.

When it comes to tanning beds, UVA rays are the ones that are most commonly used. This is because, when used on their own, they do not actually cause redness in the skin, but this is not necessarily a good thing, as this means that you cannot actually see all of the damage that is being done.

While UVA rays are believed to play a part in the development of skin cancers, this is something that UVB rays tend to be more responsible for.

UVB Rays

As mentioned above, UVB rays are the ones that cause the majority of skin cancers. They are also mostly responsible for sunburns, and can burn unprotected skin after just 15 minutes in the sun.

Even though UVA rays may be powerful, UVB rays actually contain slightly more energy, and although they may only affect the outer layer of skin, they are still able to severely damage the DNA within skin cells directly.

While the atmosphere of the planet does absorb quite a bit of the sun’s UVB rays, there is still enough reaching the surface of the earth to cause a significant amount of damage to your health.

UVA and UVB penetrating the skin layers

UVC Rays

UVC rays are the most damaging and harmful of the three UV ray types.

Fortunately, the average person does not really need to worry about this…

Why?

Because the UVC rays emitted by the sun are actually absorbed by the atmosphere, meaning that they do not reach the surface of the earth, and therefore do not reach your skin. This means that you do not need to be concerned about them when it comes to sun damage or skin cancer.

However, UVC rays can also be found in man-made sources of radiation, which is something that anyone using these tools needs to be aware of.

The Varying Strengths of UV Rays

The strength of the UV rays that are actually hitting the surface of the earth depend on a number of different factors:

  • Time of Day – UV rays tend to be at their strongest between 10am and 3pm, although this does depend on where you live
  • Season – UV rays tend to be stronger in the spring and summer months
  • Setting – UV rays tend to be stronger in wide open spaces, whereas exposure is minimized in urban settings, due to tall buildings shading the streets
  • Altitude – UV rays are stronger at higher altitudes
  • Cloud Cover – While UV rays can penetrate through cloud, thick cloud cover will lower the amount of UV exposure that you will face
  • Latitude – This refers to your distance from the equator. The further you are from the equator, the lower the strength of the UV rays you will experience
  • Surface Reflection – UV rays can reflect off a variety of different surfaces, increasing your exposure to them. A few examples of these surfaces include snow, water, sand and grass
  • Medications – Certain medications can increase your susceptibility to UV rays. These include birth control pills, diuretics and tranquillizers, amongst many others

Symptoms of Too Much UV Exposure

It is quite easy to tell whether or not you have been over-exposed to UV rays…

In the short term, you will notice either a suntan or a sunburn, both of which are signs of skin damage.

In the long run, these are a few of the issues that you will experience:

  • Premature skin aging, including wrinkles and a loss of skin elasticity
  • Dark patches, also known as sun spots, age spots or liver spots
  • Pre-cancerous skin changes, such as dry and rough patches

In addition to affecting your skin, UV rays can also have quite an impact on your eyes.

UVA rays in particular are able to pass through the cornea, reaching the lens and the retina, and have been linked to the development of certain types of cataracts. Studies have also shown that UVA rays could be responsible for macular degeneration.

When it comes to UVB rays, these can cause pingueculae and pterygia, both of which result in growths on the surface of the eye. Not only can these become quite unsightly, but they can also affect the vision and cause other problems with the cornea.

UVB rays are also known to cause photokeratitis, which is also known as snow blindness. This is quite a painful condition, resulting in the cornea being inflamed, as well as vision loss for a period of around 24-48 hours. 

Ways to Protect Yourself from UV Rays

After understanding more about the damage that different UV rays can cause, it is understandable to want to up your game when it comes to sun protection.

The most obvious form of sun protection is a sunscreen, and this is something that everybody should be using on a daily basis.

sunscreen protecting against UV rays

Of course, there are so many different types of sunscreens out there, that choosing one can be quite intimidating.

To break it down a bit, sunscreens can be categorized into two types: physical and chemical.

Physical sunscreens contain ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and work by blocking and reflecting UV rays, so that they do not enter the skin.

Chemical sunscreens are formulated with chemicals that absorb the sun’s UV rays, so that they do not cause any damage to your skin. These can be more irritating to the skin, with some causing allergic reactions.

But which is better when it comes to protecting against UV rays?

While chemical sunscreens do offer slightly more protection than physical sunscreens, they do also take 20 minutes to come into effect, whereas physical sunscreens start working their magic immediately. This means that the sunscreen that you choose should depend on the activity that you are doing, as well as your skin type and sensitivity.

When choosing your sunscreen, you will likely also notice the terms SPF and PPD on certain labels.

Do you know exactly what these terms mean?

SPF refers to how well a sunscreen can protect against UVB rays, while PPD measures how well it can protect against UVA rays.

For everyday use, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 is just about sufficient, but, to be safe, you would be best off opting for an SPF of 30. In terms of PPD, try to look for one that measures at least 8, although if your skin is quite fair, you may need something stronger.

Finally, make sure that the sunscreen you are using states that it is a broad spectrum sunscreen. This means that it will protect you against both UVA and UVB rays.

When actually applying sunscreen, many people do not use enough of the product, meaning that their skin does not end up being sufficiently protected. If you are applying it to your whole body, you will need to use around two full tablespoons of sunscreen, or two teaspoons if you are just covering your face, neck and arms.

While some people think that applying some sunscreen is enough to protect themselves from the sun’s UV rays, there is actually plenty more that you could be doing…

To begin with, you should be making sure that you stay in the shade during the hottest hours of the day, as this is when UV rays are at their strongest.

hottest hours of the day

You should also be strategically using clothing to protect your skin. Here are a few tips on what to wear:

    • Darker colors offer more protection than lighter colors
    • Long sleeved shirts, long pants and long skirts cover the whole body, making them the best for sun protection
    • Tightly woven fabrics are better than loosely woven fabrics, as these still allow UV rays to enter 
    • Dry fabric tends to be more protective than wet fabric
    • If you can see light through a fabric when you hold it up, then this is a sign that UV rays will be able to pass through the fabric too

To give your clothes a bit of a boost when it comes to UV protection, you can purchase special laundry detergents that increase the UPF value of your clothes.

How?

They basically add a layer of UV protection to each garment, without changing its texture, color or shape.

In addition to clothing, you should also be wearing a hat when you are out in the sun, and preferably one that has a wide brim. This will give some extra protection to your face, which is where your skin is most delicate and sensitive. If your hat has a dark and non-reflective underside to the brim, this is a huge plus, as it will prevent any reflected UV rays from bouncing up into your eyes.

As mentioned above, UV rays can cause so much damage to the eyes, which is why sunglasses are essential. You need to be wearing a pair that blocks 99-100% of UV rays, which should be stated on the label. For added protection, go for something with a dark frame, or a style that wraps around your face, as this will protect you from light that is coming at you from different angles.

Even if you wear contact lenses that come with UV protection, sunglasses are still an important addition, as your contacts do not cover your whole eye, as well as the surrounding area of skin.

What About Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is key when it comes to healthy bones, teeth and muscles, and while it can be found in small amounts in certain foods, such as oily fish and eggs, the body creates most of its vitamin D when it is exposed to sunlight.

So how do you get your daily amount of vitamin D while protecting your skin at the same time?

Well, conveniently, it takes about 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure before your skin begins to burn. Your body also only needs 15 minutes of sun exposure to create all of the vitamin D that it needs for the day

After you have spent 15 minutes in the sun unprotected, it is then time to reach for your sun protection. If you are particularly worried about your vitamin D intake, you can always opt for vitamin supplements too.

UV rays can cause so much damage, not only to your skin but also to your eyes and your general health. It is so easy to forget about sun protection, but, in the long run, this is going to be something that you will really end up regretting.

No matter what stage of life you may currently be at, it is never too late to begin committing to protecting yourself from the sun, and it will likely not be long before you begin to notice a few improvements.

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