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UVA vs UVB... Do you know the difference?

Updated: May 9

One thing that isn't different is that unprotected exposure to both UVA and UVB rays contributes to skin cancer. One is not safer than the other.

But how exactly do they differ?

UVA rays make up the majority of the sun's rays that hit planet Earth. They penetrate deep into our skin where they cause damage to collagen and elastin, two proteins that make our skin supple and strong. To try and prevent further damage, the skin darkens (tans). Over time, the increased damage leads to wrinkly, leathery skin, often with pigmentation too. It's this skin damage from UVA exposure that is the main contributor to premature ageing.

Due to its role in tanning, UVA rays are used in tanning beds. So getting that pre-holiday tan in, or keeping your tan topped up all year round, will dramatically increase your exposure to this skin-damaging, ageing-accelerating ray. Ultimately there is no such thing as 'safe' tanning.

UVB rays don’t go quite as deep, they only penetrate the outer layers of our skin. These are the rays responsible for making our skin produce vitamin D. We have a protein called 7-DHC in our skin which absorbs UVB radiation and this interaction converts it into vitamin D3.

However, it’s also the UV ray that is responsible for burning. And they can damage your skin all year round, even when it's wintery outside, where they can reflect off surfaces like snow and ice.

Diagram showing difference between UVA and UVB rays and their impact on the skin

Damage from UVA and UVB exposure is cumulative, meaning your risk of skin cancer increases over time with repeated exposures. How much damage is created with each exposure depends on several factors such as how long you have been exposing your unprotected skin to the sun and your geographical location.

That’s why it’s important to have sun cream that protects you against both UVA and UVB.

Sounds simple doesn't it?

Unfortunately, that's not always the case. SPF only measures UVB rays. It doesn’t tell you anything about the protection it offers against UVA rays. So it's important to make sure the sun cream you pick up is a broad spectrum one that protects you against both.

Top tip… UVA rays can go through clouds and glass… so wear your suncream all year round to help keep the skin damage at bay.

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