CFAES Give Today

Ohio State University Extension


Ultraviolet Light Exposure: Health Concerns

Family and Consumer Sciences
Pat Brinkman, Assistant Professor, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator

Society today admires someone with a beautiful tan. Everyone wants to have a dark golden look. Many think a tan provides some sun protection, but actually, a tan is a form of skin damage. Ultraviolet rays from the sun or a tanning machine damage skin and do not provide any protection from skin cancer. Tanning is a response in the skin to limit the damage and prevent sunburn, if possible. Ultraviolet (UV) rays damage skin but can also create vision problems, allergic reactions, depressed immune systems and aging of the skin.

UV rays from the sun or tanning machines cause tanning and burning of the skin. Although these rays cannot be seen or felt, they penetrate the skin and stimulate cells containing a brownish pigment called melanin. This melanin rises to the skin’s surface in an effort to provide some protection against sunburn. It tries to absorb and scatter the ultraviolet rays. This melanin gives a tanned look, which is damage to the skin. For people who naturally are darker skinned, the melanin in their skin provides them with some protection against sunburns.

Fair-skinned people including redheads, blondes and people with blue or light green eyes burn more quickly due to less melanin in their skin. Darker skin tones provide greater protection from UV rays, as higher amounts of melanin are present in the skin. Although darker skin tones provide more protection from sunburn and skin cancer, burning and skin damage can occur.

UV rays exist in three different wavelengths: UVC, UVA and UVB. UVC is filtered out by the ozone layer, not reaching the earth. UVA rays have longer wavelengths that penetrate the skin more deeply, thus stimulating tanning. UVA rays are linked to wrinkling, premature skin aging, loss of skin elasticity, cataracts and other eye problems, skin rashes, and allergic or other reactions to drugs. UVB causes the red associated with sunburn and premature aging of the skin. Both UVA and UVB cause skin damage, DNA damage and skin cancer.

Today’s tanning machines primarily emit UVA, which was thought to produce a tan without causing sunburn. However, UV rays from tanning machines may be 10 to 15 times the sun’s intensity, thus increasing the risk of skin damage and skin cancer. In 2009, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified UV radiation from tanning machines and the sun as a carcinogenic to humans.

Because skin damage from UV rays is cumulative, protection against UV rays should start in early years. Once the damage from UV rays has been done, it cannot be reversed. Avoiding tanning machines and using skin protection such as sunscreens, protective clothing, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses is important to prevent damage.


sunburned skin basal cell carcinoma on the eyelid

Skin cancer is linked with exposure to UV rays from the sun or a tanning machine. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime. Three major types of skin cancer exist: basal, squamous and melanoma. About 90 percent of basal and squamous cancers are associated with long-term exposure to UV rays and usually develop on sun-exposed areas of the skin such as the head, arms and legs. Basal and squamous cancers are seldom fatal if identified and treated early.

Melanoma accounts for 74 percent of deaths from skin cancer and is characterized by a mole that changes or dark, black, or brown patches. Fair-skinned people who have been exposed to UV light over long periods of time are more at risk for melanoma. Using tanning machines and having several bad sunburns creates a higher risk factor. Do monthly skin exams to check for any abnormal growths or changes in skin or moles. If changes or growths appear, make an appointment with your doctor. Early detection and treatment is important and increases the survival rate. Daily sunscreen use can reduce the incidence of melanoma by half.

Premature Aging of Skin

Repeated exposure to UV rays is attributed to 90 percent of the changes in the skin attributed to aging. Repeated exposure damages the elasticity of the skin, causing it to sag and wrinkle and become leathery in appearance. Repeated exposure to UV rays will increase the effect of the rays, as the exposure is irreversible. Brown patches or spots are another sign of damage, along with skin having a yellow or grayish hue. Daily sunscreen use will reduce premature aging of the skin.

Allergic Reactions

Certain products, medicines or drugs may increase sensitivity to UV light, thus increasing the risk of a severe burn or skin eruptions. Check labels and ask your pharmacist of possible concerns with UV light exposure.

Sun-sensitive individuals may need to take additional precautions. Check with your health care professional if you are concerned about exposure to UV light or have an unusual reaction to exposure.

Eye Damage

Exposure to UV rays increases the risk of eye damage, including cataracts. Increased risk of macular degeneration, ocular melanomas, corneal sunburns and growths on the surface of the eye are linked with exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning machines. Five percent to ten percent of all skin cancers occur on the eyelids. Wearing sunglasses can reduce exposure.


Originally posted Feb 18, 2016.