How Do UV Rays Affect the Skin?

College students wearing clothing that protects them from uv rays

Interested in becoming an esthetician? Curious about skin care health and UV rays? Becoming an esthetician is a great way to help others, while learning new techniques and technologies to keep client’s skin healthy. So, what are UV rays, and how do they impact skin health?

What are UV Rays?

The term UV Rays refers to ultraviolet radiation. It is a kind of electromagnetic radiation that occurs naturally through sunlight. This particular kind of radiation is capable of penetrating Earth’s atmosphere and make up approximately 10% of the sun’s total electromagnetic radiation. All UV rays are not created equal, however. There are three different kinds of ultraviolet radiation. There are UVA, UVB, and UVC radiation. The primary differences between the three are their varied wavelengths.

UVC Radiation

These UV rays are the shortest of the three. They are able to reach our planet from the sun but are then absorbed by the ozone layer in the Earth’s atmosphere. They are too short to reach humans or affect our daily lives through our planetary protections.

UVB Radiation

This ray classification has a longer wavelength than UVC and is able to reach and affect human beings. UVB rays are able to radiate through the top layers of skin, also known as the epidermis. This kind of ultraviolet radiation is most prevalent during warmer months at times of day when the sun is out.

UVA Radiation

This kind of radiation has the greatest effect on humans because it has the longest wavelength of the three types. These radiation waves are able to make it through Earth’s atmospheric defenses, through the top layers of skin and into the deeper layers of skin tissue. These layers are more clinically known as the dermis or referred to as subdermal layers. UVA radiation is also strongest when the sun is highest in the sky but is constant year-round. UVA rays are so strong, in fact, that they can penetrate untreated glass.

Where are UV Rays Found?

The sun is without question the primary source of the ultraviolet radiation that we experience in our daily lives. While it is the overwhelming natural source of ultraviolet radiation, it is not the only source that affects us. We have created bulbs and lamps that also emit this kind of radiation. There are even specially designed bulbs able to approximate and concentrate the kind of UVA rays found in natural sunlight. Let’s take a look at some of the unnatural sources of UV rays we expose ourselves to.

Minor Exposures

There are some every day, common sources of ultraviolet radiation that you might not have considered as a source of UV rays. It may not have occurred to you to consider them because typically exposure to these kinds of synthetic lights are often fairly minimal, and the amount of radiation is usually pretty low. Still, it is good to know what kinds of lights can give you a prolonged exposure over a long period of time. For example, mercury vapor lighting, the kind commonly used in stadiums and school gyms, give off UV rays. Certain types of halogen, fluorescent, and incandescent lights are also slight sources. Even some types of lasers emit ultraviolet radiation. So, whether it is a sunny day or a well-lit sports event, it is good to have skin protection in mind.

Concentrated Exposure

While most manufactured UV exposure is minor, we have developed bulb technology that purposefully concentrates UVA radiation. Concentrated ultraviolet bulbs are found in either tanning lamps or tanning beds. These lamps and beds are primarily used to deepen or darken the shade of a person’s skin through a timed and controlled exposure to highly concentrated UV rays. Tanning beds, also referred to as sun beds, use this UV light to stimulating melanin production, which darkens the skin.

How Do UV Rays Affect Your Skin?

Ultraviolet radiation waves are able to do significant damage to your body if you aren’t careful. Prolonged exposure to these intense rays can compromise the appearance and integrity of your skin. It can even mutate the genetic code of your skin to cause skin cancers, depending on the intensity of the rays and the amount of time spent in them. UV rays can also damage your eyesight and cause painful, uncomfortable burns on your skin.

Effects of Different Types of UV Rays

UVC radiation is the only type rendered inconsequential on humans thanks to our crucially important ozone. However, UVB and UVA rays are not blocked by our planetary atmosphere, so both have an impact on us. There is a key difference in the effects of UVB and UVA exposure, and that is their intensity.

While both classifications of radiation can cause many of the same effects, the more severe damage is done by UVA rays because of their ability to more deeply impact the human body. UVB rays often cause things such as minor eyesight damage, prematurely aging or wrinkling skin, discoloration of the skin, and sunburns. UVA rays are usually responsible for things like severe sight impairment and melanomas, while also causing things like painful burns and elasticity damage.

Tanning and UV Rays

The tanning effect of this radiation can also produce some extreme consequences. Your skin is able to repair some of the damage done by ultraviolet radiation, but it can only repair up to a certain point. The more frequently and consistently you are exposed to UV rays the less your body will be able to defend against the damage being done by them.

Which is Better, Sunlight or a Tanning Bed?

It should be noted that both options carry the cosmetic and health risks that are associated with ultraviolet radiation because they are both significant sources of it. However, you also have to consider that with a man-made UV bulb the exposure is more highly concentrated than casual exposure to natural sunlight. Essentially what the ultimate risk factor boils down to is a matter of time. Deciding what the least dangerous option is comes down to balancing act between how time is spent in exposure, and the UVA concentration from each source. What you really need to know is that while synthetic tanning often carries greater risks, both options can be potentially harmful to the health of your skin.

What are Some Ways to Help Avoid the Harmful Dangers UV Rays?

Now that you have a better understanding of what UV rays are, you may be wondering how you can best protect your beautiful skin from this damaging radiation. It should be noted that UV exposure, UVA in particular, affects all races and skin tones regardless of whether you are trying to tan or not. Here are some of the ways you can help protect yourself without locking yourself inside 24/7.

Give Up the Tanning, Not the Tan

Do you want that golden, skin tone without the wrinkles and the risks? Do you enjoy the ritual or social aspects of regularly visiting a tanning salon, but don’t want the consequences of the tanning process? Luckily, there are options. If you are someone who wants their skin to glow you may want to consider a self-tanning spray, foam, or cream that you can apply in the privacy of your own home at any time, day or night. There are a lot of tanning product options to choose from and it might be a bit overwhelming at first glance. So, it is important that you make sure to consult a trained skincare professional such as an esthetician, cosmetologist, or dermatologist, to find a product that is safe and effective. If actually going to the tanning salon is part of the appeal, you will be happy to know that many tanning salons offer precision airbrush tanning that gives you the sunny color you want without the damage. Call your esthetician for recommendations or to book an appointment.

Full Spectrum Sunblock

Being out in the sun can help boost your mood and connect you to nature and your community. Living your life in a full and healthy way means getting outside every once in a while. But when you go out to enjoy the day you are exposing yourself to the harmful effects of UV rays. Since you can’t hide your skin from the sun’s radiation it is important that you help protect it by wearing a full spectrum sunblock with a high sun protection factor, or SPF. Be thorough and generous when you are applying your sunscreen and if you have any questions, consulting an esthetician will get you headed in the right direction. You will also want to choose a lip moisturizer that has sun blocking power.

Clothing Barriers

Clothing barriers such as long sleeves, skirts, long pants, sun hats, and sunglasses can all help protect your body from UV damage by adding a literal layer between you and sun’s dangerous rays. While clothing cannot fully protect you from all of potential sun related threats, or cover 100% of your skin, it at the very least helps minimize the effects and decreases the likelihood of burns and eyesight impairment when you are out in the blazing sun. Some clothing is specifically designed to increase its UV ray protection, and these garments are great choices when facing long periods of exposure. These are especially important if you reside in a desert climate.


Umbrellas are useful for more than just keeping you dry on rainy days. They can also provide a shield against the sun in any season or type of weather. Even on particularly sunny days you can’t always plan what you wear around the weather. That is why it’s important that you come prepared to defend against ultraviolet radiation no matter what the day has in store. Carrying around a small collapsible umbrella in your bag or keeping one in your car will ensure that you are prepared to create your very own sunshade regardless of when or where you happen to find yourself outside.

Structure Shade

Outdoor events and get-togethers are opportunities to spend time with the people you care about while doing the things you love. It is also a real source of sun exposure for most, particularly during the warm and hot months of the year. Awnings, table covers, cabanas, and other outdoor structures that provide roof shading will help you and your loved ones keep the backyard and outdoor fun while also helping you stay clear of sun damage. It is worth considering how to increase the available shade at you next outdoor event.

Plan Your Adventures

Cutting sunlight out of your life is unrealistic. Avoiding the sun altogether is not a healthy plan of action to combat UV damage. However, you can help manage the risks you do take by taking the time of day into account and considering the position of the sun. If you like to exercise outdoors perhaps choose a time early in the morning or in the early evening when the sun is not directly over you. If you are someone who likes going out and being social, you may want to look for the nightlife in your area instead of relying on outdoor, daytime activities. No one will restructure their life to avoid sunlight, but remembering other options and changing up your plans is realistic.

Final Thoughts

UV rays occur both naturally and artificially. There are some sources that can be avoided, but ultraviolet radiation is not something that can be fully avoided by any of us. No matter where it comes from this kind of radiation can have caustic effects on both the health and appearance of your skin if the exposure happens often or for long periods of time. Prioritizing your skin health by taking the necessary precautions against UV damage will help give your skin the support it needs to repair the incidental damages that may be done while you’re out living your life.

Want to Learn More?

Did learning about how UV rays affect the skin interest you? If you have a passion for skincare, you could begin your career as an esthetician at the Minnesota School of Cosmetology (MSC).  Our Esthiology Diploma Program is designed to be completed in under 5 months (600 clock hours) with full-time enrollment.  Our esthiology diploma program has been developed by talented, caring, real-world professionals, many of whom still work in the field.  We give our esthiology students experience in skincare, waxing, make-up, application of facials, and more.

Contact us today to learn more about becoming an esthetician and starting a rewarding career in the beauty industry.

*Completion time for this program is defined by 35 hours per week.

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