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Ultraviolet Light (UV)

Ultraviolet (UV) light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength shorter than that of visible light, but longer than x-rays, in the range 400 nm to 10 nm, and energies from 3 eV to 124 eV. It is so named because the spectrum consists of electromagnetic waves with frequencies higher than those that humans identify as the color violet.

UV light is found in sunlight and is emitted by electric arcs and specialized lights such as black lights. As an ionizing radiation it can cause chemical reactions, and causes many substances to glow or fluoresce. Most people are aware of the effects of UV through the painful condition of sunburn, but the UV spectrum has many other effects, both beneficial and damaging, on human health.

he discovery of UV radiation was intimately associated with the observation that silver salts darken when exposed to sunlight. In 1801 the German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter made the hallmark observation that invisible rays just beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum were especially effective at darkening silver chloride-soaked paper. He called them "de-oxidizing rays" to emphasize their chemical reactivity and to distinguish them from "heat rays" at the other end of the visible spectrum. The simpler term "chemical rays" was adopted shortly thereafter, and it remained popular throughout the 19th century. The terms chemical and heat rays were eventually dropped in favor of ultraviolet and infrared radiation, respectively.

The discovery of the ultraviolet radiation below 200 nm, named vacuum ultraviolet because it is strongly absorbed by air, was made in 1893 by the German physicist Victor Schumann

The Sun emits ultraviolet radiation in the UVA, UVB, and UVC bands, but because of absorption in the atmosphere's ozone layer, 98.7% of the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the Earth's surface is UVA. (Some of the UVB and UVC radiation is responsible for the generation of the ozone layer.)

Ordinary glass is partially transparent to UVA but is opaque to shorter wavelengths while Silica or quartz glass, depending on quality, can be transparent even to vacuum UV wavelengths. Ordinary window glass passes about 90% of the light above 350 nm, but blocks over 90% of the light below 300 nm.

The onset of vacuum UV, 200 nm, is defined by the fact that ordinary air is opaque below this wavelength. This opacity is due to the strong absorption of light of these wavelengths by oxygen in the air. Pure nitrogen (less than about 10 ppm oxygen) is transparent to wavelengths in the range of about 150–200 nm. This has wide practical significance now that semiconductor manufacturing processes are using wavelengths shorter than 200 nm. By working in oxygen-free gas, the equipment does not have to be built to withstand the pressure differences required to work in a vacuum. Some other scientific instruments, such as circular dichroism spectrometers, are also commonly nitrogen purged and operate in this spectral region.

Extreme UV is characterized by a transition in the physics of interaction with matter: wavelengths longer than about 30 nm interact mainly with the chemical valence electrons of matter, while wavelengths shorter than that interact mainly with inner shell electrons and nuclei. The long end of the EUV/XUV spectrum is set by a prominent He+ spectral line at 30.4 nm. XUV is strongly absorbed by most known materials, but it is possible to synthesize multilayer optics that reflect up to about 50% of XUV radiation at normal incidence. This technology has been used to make telescopes for solar imaging; it was pioneered by the NIXT and MSSTA sounding rockets in the 1990s; (current examples are SOHO/EIT and TRACE) and for nanolithography (printing of traces and devices on microchips).

Beneficial effects

Vitamin D

The Earth's atmosphere blocks UV radiation from penetrating through the atmosphere by 98.7%. A positive effect of UVB exposure is that it induces the production of vitamin D in the skin. It has been estimated that tens of thousands of premature deaths occur in the United States annually from a range of cancers due to vitamin D deficiency. Another effect of vitamin D deficiency is bad absorption of calcium which can lead to bone diseases.

Some studies show most people get adequate Vitamin D through food and incidental exposure

Many countries have fortified certain foods with Vitamin D to prevent deficiency. Eating fortified foods or taking a dietary supplement pill is usually preferred to UVB exposure, due to the increased risk of skin cancer from UV radiation.


Too little UVB radiation leads to a lack of Vitamin D. Too much UVB radiation leads to direct DNA damages and sunburn. An appropriate amount of UVB (which varies according to skin color) leads to a limited amount of direct DNA damage. This is recognized and repaired by the body. Then the melanin production is increased which leads to a long lasting tan. This tan occurs with a 2 day lag phase after irradiation, but it is much less harmful and long lasting than the one obtained from UVA. However some tanning lotions and sprays available in the market don't require UV exposure.

Medical applications

Ultraviolet radiation has other medical applications, in the treatment of skin conditions such as psoriasis and vitiligo. UVA radiation can be used in conjunction with psoralens (PUVA treatment). UVB radiation is rarely used in conjunction with psoralens. In cases of psoriasis and vitiligo, UV light with wavelength of 311 nm is most effective.

Harmful effects

An overexposure to UVB radiation can cause sunburn and some forms of skin cancer. In humans, prolonged exposure to solar UV radiation may result in acute and chronic health effects on the skin, eye, and immune system. However the most deadly form - malignant melanoma - is mostly caused by the indirect DNA damage (free radicals and oxidative stress). This can be seen from the absence of a UV-signature mutation in 92% of all melanoma.

UVC rays are the highest energy, most dangerous type of ultraviolet light. Little attention has been given to UVC rays in the past since they are filtered out by the atmosphere. However, their use in equipment such as pond sterilization units may pose an exposure risk, if the lamp is switched on outside of its enclosed pond sterilization unit.

LEFT: German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter in 1801

ABOVE: A scorpion illuminated by black light

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