Medical Definition of Ultraviolet radiation

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Ultraviolet radiation: Invisible rays that are part of the energy that comes from the sun. Ultraviolet radiation can burn the skin and cause skin cancer.

Ultraviolet radiation is made up of three types of rays -- ultraviolet A, ultraviolet B, and ultraviolet C. Although ultraviolet C is the most dangerous type of ultraviolet light in terms of its potential to harm life on earth, it cannot penetrate earth's protective ozone layer. Therefore, it poses no threat to human, animal or plant life on earth.

Ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B, on the other hand, do penetrate the ozone layer in attenuated form and reach the surface of the planet. Because ultraviolet A is weaker than ultraviolet B, scientists long blamed ultraviolet B as the sole culprit in causing skin cancer in persons with a history of sunburn and repeated overexposure to ultraviolet radiation. Recent research, however, has also implicated ultraviolet A as a possible cause of skin cancer.

Ultraviolet B rays are more likely than ultraviolet A rays to cause sunburn, but ultraviolet A passes further into the skin. Scientists have long thought that ultraviolet B can cause melanoma and other types of skin cancer. They now think that ultraviolet A may add to skin damage that can lead to cancer. For this reason, skin specialists recommend that people use sunscreens that block both kinds of radiation.

In addition to natural light from the sun, artificial light from tanning lamps contains ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B. Electric arc lamps can also generate ultraviolet light to heat furnaces for melting and to enable motion-picture projectors to show movies.

Though ultraviolet light can damage health, it can also maintain or improve health. When ultraviolet light strikes human skin, it triggers the production of vitamin D, which promotes the growth of bones and teeth.

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Reviewed on 12/27/2018

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