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UVA vs. UVB — What’s the Difference & How Do Them Affect Your Skin

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Everybody says you should protect yourself from ultraviolet radiation (UVR), but it becomes challenging to comply if you don’t understand what it’s all about. Here is the right place to start because this article covers all you need to know, from the differences between UV rays, how they affect your skin, and some tips for limiting sun damage. Understanding the basics of ultraviolet radiation and how it can damage the skin is the first and most important step in learning how to protect yourself against photoaging, sunburns, skin cancer, and eye damage.

UV is a type of energy produced by the sun and some artificial sources as tanning beds. Few factors influence the strength of the UV rays reaching the ground, according to the American Cancer Society. UV rays are strongest between 10 AM and 4 PM and more harmful during the spring and summer months. Also, UVR exposure goes down as you get farther from the equator, and more UV rays reach the ground at higher elevations. UV can also penetrate clouds and windows and can bounce off surfaces like water, sand, snow, or even grass.

Two types of UV rays reach the ground: ultraviolet A-rays (UVA) and ultraviolet B-rays (UVB). The third type, ultraviolet C-rays, is the highest energy level, but fortunately, this one is filtered out by the atmosphere.

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UVA and UVB rays reach the ground in different amounts. Approximately 95% of the sun’s UV rays that reach us are UVA, while the remaining 5% are UVB rays.

UVA – Associated with skin aging

UVA rays may have the lowest energy level, but they still contribute to premature skin aging and even skin cancer development. This is why now manufacturers began adding ingredients in sunscreens to protect you from both UVA and UVB. 

While UVA rays are lightly less intense than UVB, they penetrate your skin more deeply, and exposure to them can cause genetic cell damage on the innermost part of your top skin layer. The skin tries to prevent further damage by darkening, resulting in a tan, but no tan is healthy. Over time, UVA exposure leads to photoaging, characterized by wrinkles, altered pigmentation, and skin tone loss.

How does that happen? Well, anyone who has tried to rejuvenate their skin knows that collagen and elastin are the main proteins responsible for skin elasticity and firmness. When these proteins’ level decreases, the skin starts to lose its elasticity, visibly resulting in fine lines and wrinkles.

Studies show that UVA induces activation of transcription factors in skin cells, including factor activator protein-1 (AP-1). This transcription factor is responsible for the production of matrix metalloproteinases (MMP), which specifically degrade connective tissue such as collagen and elastin. Fisher’s study revealed that AP-1, which leads to increased collagen breakdown, becomes elevated and remains elevated within 24 hours following UV irradiation.

Research found that the visibly damaging effects of UVA radiation only appear after years of exposure. They also show that the skin sensitivity to UV light is linked to the skin phototype, which means light-colored skin is more sensitive than dark-colored skin.

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Skin Phototype

UVB – Associated with skin burning

UVB rays are the ones responsible for producing sunburn, playing the greatest role in causing skin cancer because they penetrate and damage the outermost layer of the skin. Somehow it’s good news that only 5% of them reach the ground. But remember that UVB rays can damage your skin all-year-round, especially at high altitudes or on reflective surfaces (snow, ice). On the other hand, UVB rays can be filtered, and they don’t penetrate glass.

How to reduce the damage caused by UVR


Antioxidants

Ask any dermatologist about how to protect your skin against UV, and everyone will say the same thing: use antioxidants. Why? Because UV exposure causes oxidative stress, and antioxidants are known to inhibit damages induced by oxidation. Many other studies confirmed that skin exposure to UVR leads to the oxidation of cellular biomolecules that could be prevented by prior antioxidant treatment.

It seems that nutritional factors influence the skin’s antioxidative defense. Besides vitamins A, C, and E, fatty acids, certain nonvitamin plant-derived ingredients might benefit skin aging, skin sun protection, or skin cancer. 

Natural antioxidants are generally considered fruits and vegetables, including tea, grape, bergamot, rooibos, grapefruit, and red orange. All these compounds can prevent penetration of UVR into the skin and can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.

Vitamin C is probably one of the most effective antioxidants because it can increase collagen production and protect against damage from UVR.


Tretinoin

Exposure to UVR can also lead to a deficiency of vitamin A, resulting in cell damage. Tretinoin is the active form of vitamin A, and research shows that it reduces photoaging effects. Studies have found that topical tretinoin combined with sun protection cream is a useful treatment of sun-damaged skin. While you need a prescription to get tretinoin, you can use retinol instead, which you can say is an OTC form of tretinoin. Both tretinoin and retinol are retinoids, a form of vitamin A, thus they act similarly. Still, tretinoin is more effective because it does not need to get converted into the active form of vitamin A, as retinol does. However, you can find retinol in many OTC products, so it may be more convenient for some. 


How to protect against UVR

First, try to stay in the shade or indoors, especially between 10 AM and 4 PM.

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Say no to UV tanning beds. Instead, find a product that will tan you without the need for exposure to sunlight, such as a tanning lotion. And if it’s organic, you hit it big! Beauty by Earth has a great one on Amazon.

Every time you go out, 30 minutes before, use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen. If you have to stay outdoors for extended amounts of time, use sunscreen with at least SPF 30. Always reapply every two hours if you’re swimming or sweating excessively. 

Clothing is a great barrier against the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Many fabrics offer high-tech protection and breathability at the same time. The more skin you cover, the better it is. Also, a hat with a wide brim (3 inches or more) helps a lot because it shades your face, ears, and neck. And remember, the sunglasses you wear should block UV — otherwise, your eyes and skin around them are not protected.


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