As the sun continues to cause sunburns across the country, it’s important to know how best to enjoy the summer while staying safe from UV radiation. July is known as UV Safety Awareness Month, but what is UV really? Ultraviolet (UV) rays are an invisible kind of radiation that comes from the sun, tanning beds and sunlamps and can penetrate and change skin cells.1
There are multiple forms of UV radiation, but the most common form of UV radiation comes from the sun, followed by tanning beds and sunlamps. Of the three types of UV rays (UVA, UVB and UVC), humans are most exposed to UVA and UVB rays naturally. UVC exposure only occurs through unnatural sources such as a tanning bed or sunlamp.
The Risks of UV Radiation
There are several risks associated with exposure to UV radiation, two common ones being skin injuries — sunburns after short-term exposure and skin cancer after long-term exposure — and eye injuries. It’s also important to speak to your doctor about UV exposure to check if you’re on any medication than could cause your eyes or skin to be more sensitive to UV rays.
There are several factors to consider that affect the amount of UV radiation you are exposed to. These include:1
- Geography: UV rays are strongest closer to the equator.
- Altitude: You are more exposed to UV radiation at higher altitudes, so keep this in mind when hiking or traveling to new places.
- Time of year: During the summer months, the angle of the sun is more direct. This can cause you to obtain increased amounts of UV exposure.
- Time of day: UV rays are strongest during the hours around noon. This is when the sun is at its peak. UV rays are also stronger during the spring and summer and decreases during the fall and winter. It is best to stay out of the sun during the hours of 10 am to 4 pm.
- Weather conditions: Don’t be deceived by a cloudy day as UV rays can still penetrate through clouds and reach Earth. Even on cloudy days you can still sustain damage to your skin and eyes. Remember to protect yourself with sunscreen and eye protection at all times when outdoors.
- Reflection: Exposure to UV radiation is increased when in contact with reflective surfaces such as pavement, snow, water, and sand. Wearing good sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen can help protect you from any unwanted UV exposure.
Tanning Beds and UVC Lamps
Like UVA and UVB rays, UVC radiation causes sunburns as well as eye injuries. While injuries or burns caused by UVC rays aren’t typically as serious as UVA and UVB exposure, there is still a risk of damage to skin and eyes. It is best to avoid exposure from tanning beds and UVC lamps. If tanning beds or UVC lamps are used, be sure to wear protective eye covering and limit time exposure.
Eye injury from UVC rays can cause painful swelling of the cornea. The consequences of too much UVC eye exposure can include tearing, light sensitivity, blurred vision, redness, and the feeling of having sand in the eyes. This can happen even after short-term exposure to UVC rays.
Not all UVC lamps are alike. Some lamps can release small quantities of UVB radiation. For this reason, it is important to avoid exposure to high dose lamps and prolonged exposure to low-dose lamps as the impact of these could potentially lead to outcomes of skin cancer or cataracts caused by prolonged effects from UVB rays.
Protecting Your Skin and Eyes From Sunburn
Symptoms of sunburn usually start about four hours after sun exposure, worsen over 24–36 hours and resolve in three to five days. These symptoms include red, tender and swollen skin, blistering, headache, fever, nausea and fatigue. In addition to the skin, eyes can become sunburned. Sunburned eyes become red, dry and painful. Chronic eye exposure can even cause permanent damage, including blindness.
There are many recommended ways to avoid sunburns altogether, including:2
- Avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun
- Wearing sunscreen with a minimum rating of SPF-15
- Looking for sunscreen products containing Mexoryl, Parsol 1789, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or avobenzone
- Applying sunscreen correctly and reapplying it often
- Throwing away sunscreen after 1–2 years (it loses potency)
- Wearing clothing with a tight weave or high-SPF clothing
- Wearing wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses with UV protection and side panels
- Taking breaks in shaded areas and drinking plenty of water
Additional Tips to Protect Your Eyes
Protecting skin from UV rays is much emphasized during the summer, but eyes are at risk from UV rays year-round. It’s important to protect the eyes from UV rays in all situations by wearing proper eye protection — either UV-blocking sunglasses or appropriate tanning goggles.
Here are some tips for keeping your eyes safe from UV radiation:3
- Select sunglasses that block UV rays, preferably ones marked as 100% UV-blocking.
- Choose your sunglasses wisely. It is best to wear sunglasses that wrap- around the contours of your face, so the sun’s rays can’t creep around the edges of your eyes.
- Encourage even young children to practice eye protection, such as wearing a hat in addition to sunglasses.
- For contact lens wearers, don’t rely on your contact lenses even if your contact lenses have UV protection. In addition, remember to wear your sunglasses.
- Don’t let a cloudy day fool you: The sun’s UV rays can penetrate through clouds, no matter the time of year.
- Eye protection is especially important during peak sun times: While it is best to avoid the sun during the peak hours or 10 am to 4 pm when UV rays are more intense, remember to wear your sunglasses anytime you are outside.
- Finally, avoid looking directly at the sun at any time. This can lead to ‘sunburn of the eye’ and cause damage to the retina of your eyes.
It’s still possible to have fun in the sun and be outdoors. Just be sure to practice appropriate sun protection for your skin and eyes — not just during UV Safety Awareness Month but all year long.
Grand Canyon University’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions is committed to helping individuals take control of their health by educating them about common medical risks of UV radiation and more. GCU offers a variety of medical studies and science degree programs to help develop tomorrow’s medical professionals. Click on the Request Info button to learn more about your options at GCU.
1U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation in August 2020
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.