Animation: UV radiation damages your skin

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun has many damaging effects, and can cause sunburn, skin cancer and photo-ageing (including wrinkles). Have a look at our animation to see how exposure to the sun’s harmful rays results in tanning and skin damage.

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There are 3 different types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation – UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC radiation is very damaging, but is almost entirely filtered out by the ozone layer. UVA and UVB rays are able to penetrate the skin and can cause sunburn, skin ageing and skin cancer.

Malignant melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Fortunately, it is not as common as the other types of sun-related skin cancers, known as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. While exposure to UV light increases your risk of melanoma, it is possible for melanomas to appear on areas of skin that are not typically directly exposed to the sun.

UV radiation also stimulates specialised skin cells called melanocytes to produce melanin, a brown-black skin pigment. Melanin can help to protect your skin against further exposure to the sun by filtering out some of the UV rays, and gives your skin a tanned appearance.

However, even a light tan is a sign that you have been exposed to too much sun. Although the process of tanning is your body’s natural way of providing the lower levels of skin with protection from further sun damage, the level of protection is minimal. In fact, a tan usually provides no more protection than an SPF 2 sunscreen.

All people have about the same number of melanocytes in their skin. It is the amount of melanin produced that determines the colour and depth of your tan. People with fair skin (most people from Northern European backgrounds) have a less protective form of melanin, and their skin only ever burns, and never tans.

Last Reviewed: 30 April 2010
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References

1. World Health Organization.Health effects of UV radiation. Available at: http://www.who.int/uv/health/en/ (accessed 2010, May 11)
2. World Health Organization. UV radiation. Available at: http://www.who.int/uv/faq/whatisuv/en/print.html (accessed 2010, May 11)
3. Merck Manual of Medical Information ?? Second Home Edition. Sunlight and skin damage (reviewed 2007, August). Available at: http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec18/ch214/ch214a.html
4. Cancer Council Australia [website]. Melanoma (updated 2010, Apr 23). Available at: http://www.cancer.org.au/aboutcancer/cancertypes/melanoma.htm (accessed 2010, May 11)
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