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Ultraviolet rays have their place in our ecosystem, (and it isn't merely to provide manufacturers an opportunity to sell their sunscreens). UV rays, for example, are necessary for our body to produce vitamin D, a substance that helps strengthen bones and safeguards against diseases such as Rickets. Some scientists have shown that Vitamin D lowers the risk of getting some kinds of internal cancer, like colon cancer.
UV light is also used as a therapy for psoriasis, a condition in which the skin sheds its cells too quickly, resulting in itchy, scaly patches on various parts of the body. When exposed to ultraviolet rays, the growth of the skin cells is slowed, relieving the symptoms.
UV rays are also used in various commercial functions, such as disinfecting fish tanks and sterilizing medical equipment. Animal life makes their own use of these wavelengths so certain animals can actually see ultraviolet light, and use it to their advantage. Bees use the reflection of UV off of flower petals to guide their pollen collecting. More effects of UV on plants and animals can be found here.
Though ultraviolet rays do have a purpose, one must not use this information as a validation for their sunbathing habits. The dangers of UV exposure are real, and public ignorance concerning these matters could lead to increased health problems in the future.
One of the most common effects of UV exposure is "erythema", also known as sunburn. Sunburn occurs when skin cells are damaged by the absorption of energy from UV rays. To compensate for this injury, the skin sends extra blood to the damaged skin in an attempt to repair it thus accounting for the redness that is associated with sunburn. The amount of time it takes for a sun-burn to occur is dependent mostly on the relative amounts of UV rays that are hitting the skin, and on a persons skin type. People with naturally dark skin already have inherently high levels of melanin, and so are able to spend a longer amount of time in the sun before burning, if they burn at all. Fair-skinned people don't have it quite so easy so burning can occur within a relatively short amount of time.
Another effect of ultraviolet rays on the skin is photo-aging. Recent studies have shown that many of the symptoms commonly associated with mere aging (i.e. wrinkles, loosening of the skin) may instead be related to UV exposure so though your tan may look good now, you could be paying your dues in wrinkles later.
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