The Earth’s atmosphere blocks most of the Sun’s UV radiation from penetrating through the atmosphere. The small amount that gets through has both positive and negative effects.
Positive (beneficial) effects of UV
Triggers vitamin D – UV from the Sun is needed by our bodies to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D helps strengthen bones, muscles and the body’s immune system. It may also lower the risk of getting some kinds of cancers such as colon cancer.
Helps some skin conditions – UV is used in the treatment of skin conditions such as psoriasis. This is a condition where the skin sheds its cells too quickly and develops itchy, scaly patches. Exposure to UV slows the growth of the skin cells and relieves the symptoms.
Helps moods – Research suggests that sunlight stimulates the pineal gland in the brain to produce certain chemicals called ‘tryptamines’. These chemicals improve our mood.
Helps some animals’ vision – Some animals (including birds, bees and reptiles) are able to see into the near UV light to locate many ripe fruits, flowers and seeds that stand out more strongly from the background. The fruits, flowers and seeds often appear quite different from how humans see them. For example, when seen in UV light, some flowers have different line markings, which may help direct bees and birds to the nectar.
Aids some insects’ navigation – Many insects use UV emissions from celestial objects as references for navigating in flight. This is why a light sometimes attracts flying insects by disrupting their navigation process.
Useful for disinfection and sterilisation – UV has positive applications in the fields of disinfection and sterilisation. UV can effectively ‘kill’ (deactivate or destroy) microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria, for example, when hanging cloth nappies, underwear and tea-towels outside on the clothesline. To destroy the microorganisms, UV rays penetrate the cell's membrane, destroying the DNA, and so stops its ability to reproduce and multiply. This destructive effect explains why we can use UV antibacterial lamps for disinfection and sterilisation.
Negative (harmful) effects of UV
Causes skin cancer – UV is an environmental human carcinogen. It’s the most prominent and universal cancer-causing agent in our environment. There is very strong evidence that each of the three main types of skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma) is caused by sun exposure. Research shows that as many as 90% of skin cancers are due to UV radiation.
Causes sunburn – UV burns the skin. Sunburn is a burn that occurs when skin cells are damaged. This damage to the skin is caused by the absorption of energy from UV rays. Extra blood flows to the damaged skin in an attempt to repair it, which is why your skin turns red when you are sunburnt.
Damages immune system – Over-exposure to UV radiation has a harmful suppressing effect on the immune system. Scientists believe that sunburn can change the distribution and function of disease-fighting white blood cells in humans for up to 24 hours after exposure to the sun. Repeated over-exposure to UV radiation can cause even more damage to the body's immune system. The immune system defends the body against bacteria, microbes, viruses, toxins and parasites (disease and infection). You can see how effective the immune system is by looking at how quickly something decays when it dies and the immune system stops working.
Damages eyes – Prolonged exposure to UV or high intensities of UV (for example, in sunbeds) damages the tissues of eyes and can cause a ‘burning’ of the eye surface, called ‘snow blindness’ or photokeratitis. The effects usually disappear within a couple of days, but may lead to further complications later in life. In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that even low amounts of sunlight can increase the risk of developing eye damage such as cataracts (which, left untreated, will cause blindness), pterygium and pinguecula. UV damage to the eyes is cumulative, so it is never too late to start protecting the eyes.
Ages skin – UV speeds up the aging of skin, since the UV destroys collagen and connective tissue beneath the top layer of the skin. This causes wrinkles, brown ‘liver’ spots and loss of skin elasticity. The difference between skin tone, wrinkles, or pigmentation on the underside of a person's arm and the top side of the same arm illustrate the effects of sun exposure on skin. Usually, the top side of the arm has had more exposure to the sun and shows greater sun damage. Because photo-aging of the skin is cumulative, it is never too late for a person to start a sun protection programme. Otherwise, though a tan may look good now, you could be paying for it with wrinkly leathery skin or skin cancer later.
Weakens plastics – Many polymers used in consumer items (including plastics, nylon and polystyrene) are broken down or lose strength due to exposure to UV light.
Fades colours – Many pigments (used for colouring food, cosmetics, fabric, plastic, paint, ink and other materials) and dyes absorb UV and change colour. Fabrics, furnishings and paintings need protection from UV (fluorescent lamps as well as sunlight) to prevent colour change or loss.
Nature of Science
The role of science is to provide the best understanding of the world at the moment. This understanding is important so that we can best decide how to use this information.
For more information UV exposure and health visit the Environmental Health Indicators New Zealand website.