Health Effects of UV Radiation
Ozone layer depletion decreases our atmosphere’s natural protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This Web page provides an overview of the major health problems linked to overexposure to UV radiation. Understanding these risks and taking sensible precautions will help you enjoy the sun while reducing your chances of sun-related health problems.
- Skin cancer (melanoma and nonmelanoma)
- Premature aging and other skin damage
- Cataracts and other eye damage
- Immune system suppression
Each year, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. One American dies from skin cancer every hour. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer.
Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is now one of the most common cancers among adolescents and young adults ages 15-29. While melanoma accounts for about three percent of skin cancer cases, it causes more than 75 percent of skin cancer deaths. UV exposure and sunburns, particularly during childhood, are risk factors for the disease. Not all melanomas are exclusively sun-related—other possible influences include genetic factors and immune system deficiencies.
Nonmelanoma Skin Cancers
Non-melanoma skin cancers are less deadly than melanomas. Nevertheless, they can spread if left untreated, causing disfigurement and more serious health problems. There are two primary types of non-melanoma skin cancers: basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. If caught and treated early, these two cancers are rarely fatal.
- Basal cell carcinomas are the most common type of skin cancer tumors. They usually appear as small, fleshy bumps or nodules on the head and neck, but can occur on other skin areas. Basal cell carcinoma grows slowly, and it rarely spreads to other parts of the body. It can, however, penetrate to the bone and cause considerable damage.
- Squamous cell carcinomas are tumors that may appear as nodules or as red, scaly patches. This cancer can develop into large masses, and unlike basal cell carcinoma, it can spread to other parts of the body.
Other UV-related skin disorders include actinic keratoses and premature aging of the skin. Actinic keratoses are skin growths that occur on body areas exposed to the sun. The face, hands, forearms, and the “V” of the neck are especially susceptible to this type of lesion. Although premalignant, actinic keratoses are a risk factor for squamous cell carcinoma. Look for raised, reddish, rough-textured growths and seek prompt medical attention if you discover them.
Chronic exposure to the sun also causes premature aging, which over time can make the skin become thick, wrinkled, and leathery. Since it occurs gradually, often manifesting itself many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. However, up to 90 percent of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun. With proper protection from UV radiation, most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.
Cataracts are a form of eye damage in which a loss of transparency in the lens of the eye clouds vision. If left untreated, cataracts can lead to blindness. Research has shown that UV radiation increases the likelihood of certain cataracts. Although curable with modern eye surgery, cataracts diminish the eyesight of millions of Americans and cost billions of dollars in medical care each year.
Other kinds of eye damage include pterygium (tissue growth that can block vision), skin cancer around the eyes, and degeneration of the macula (the part of the retina where visual perception is most acute). All of these problems can be lessened with proper eye protection. Look for sunglasses, glasses or contact lenses if you wear them, that offer 99 to 100 percent UV protection.
Scientists have found that overexposure to UV radiation may suppress proper functioning of the body’s immune system and the skin’s natural defenses. For example, the skin normally mounts a defense against foreign invaders such as cancers and infections. But overexposure to UV radiation can weaken the immune system, reducing the skin’s ability to protect against these invaders.
Download the Health Effects of Overexposure to the Sun (PDF)
Did You Know?
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and from tanning beds is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization.
I was first diagnosed with melanoma when I was 19 years old. I found a new black mole on my leg that was as small as the tip of a pencil but with jagged edges. I immediately called my doctor and was able to catch the cancer at Stage I. More than five surgeries later, the melanoma was gone.
But seven years later, it was back. This time the melanoma showed up as a larger black mole, which grew to the size of a quarter over a weekend. I called my doctor immediately and had two more surgeries to remove the melanoma.
Telling my father that his only child had melanoma was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. He worried that he would never walk his daughter down the aisle, but this summer he finally had the chance! After nearly 10 surgeries in total, I have been cancer-free now for 5 years.
Since my diagnoses, I have been vigilant about checking for skin changes and wearing sunscreen when I’m outdoors. I’ve also been inspired to spread the word about skin cancer prevention and the power of early detection by telling my story. If you find a suspicious mole, call your doctor right away!
—Julie Dunlap, WY