Hole in the 'Zone

Don't Get Burned!

As more ultraviolet radiation reaches the Earth, we face greater risk of sunburn, skin cancer, and eye problems. Learn what can go wrong and find a simple way to protect yourself.

Exposure: Reduce the time you spend in direct sunlight, especially between
11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Clothing: If you have to spend an extended time out in the sun, wear long sleeves and a hat with a wide brim.

Sunglasses: Lids, lashes, and brows provide eyes with some natural protection, but they're not nearly enough. Make sure your glasses offer UV protection.

Sunscreen: Use one with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. (Note: The effectiveness of sunscreens against certain skin cancers is not proven.)

Aussie Advice: Australians remind one another to "slip, slap, slop." Learn more at the Environmental Protection Agency's Ozone Depletion Site.

Sunburn is the most obvious sign that too much of the sun's UVb radiation has hit our skin. Fire-red flesh and searing pain remind us—all too late—of the dangers of staying out in the sun. Those perils have grown worse as stratospheric ozone depletion allows more ultraviolet light to reach Earth's surface.

Overexposure to the sun can also cause freckles and wrinkles, which you may regret later in life. (These are nature's clues for letting you know you've had too much sun.) Far more dangerous, of course, is the risk of skin cancer. Scientists know that UVb light triggers the growth of cancerous cells.

Luckily, skin cancer is one of the easiest forms of cancer to cure. It also is one of the easiest to spot because it's out there on the surface. If you learn how to look even for small changes in your skin and see a doctor on a regular basis, you can catch suspicious problems before they spread. Even so, no survival strategy beats not getting skin cancer in the first place!


Click to enlarge image Illustration of the human eye. Source: National Eye Institute
Source: National Eye Institute

Growing evidence reveals that too much sunlight can damage our eyes. Cataracts (cloudy lenses) and macular degeneration of the retina (the light-sensitive part of the eye) may become more common as exposure to UVb rises.

The eye's outer layer, the cornea, blocks only some UVb light—and none of the UVa. (UVc never reaches the ground.) Overexposure can result in a condition called corneal photokeratitis, or "snow blindness." It's like getting sunburn on the surface of the eye. This sometimes happens when sunlight bounces off snow or another reflective surface, then hits the eye. It's very painful and can lead to temporary blindness.

Solar radiation can also affect the lens of an eye. The good news is that the lens absorbs most of the UVb radiation, thereby protecting the retina. The bad news is that this can lead to cataracts. That's a condition in which a cloudy opaque area covers the lens and prevents light from passing through to the back of the eye. Today, simple surgery can remove cataracts. But, unfortunately, this procedure is not available everywhere in the world.


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