Sunlight is the most visible and obvious source of comfort in the environment. The sun provides the beneficial effects of warmth and vitamin D synthesis. However, acute and chronic sun exposure also has pathologic consequences. Cutaneous exposure to sunlight is a major cause of human skin cancer and can have immunosuppressive effects as well.
The sun’s energy reaching the earth’s surface is limited to components of the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum, the visible spectrum, and portions of the infrared spectrum. The cutoff at the short end of the UV spectrum at ∼290 nm is due primarily to stratospheric ozone—formed by highly energetic ionizing radiation—that prevents penetration to the earth’s surface of the shorter, more energetic, potentially more harmful wavelengths of solar radiation. Indeed, concern about destruction of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons released into the atmosphere has led to international agreements to reduce production of those chemicals.
Measurements of solar flux showed a 20-fold regional variation in the amount of energy at 300 nm that reaches the earth’s surface. This variability relates to seasonal effects, the path that sunlight traverses through ozone and air, the altitude (a 4% increase for each 300 m of elevation), the latitude (increasing intensity with decreasing latitude), and the amount of cloud cover, fog, and pollution.
The major components of the photobiologic action spectrum that are capable of affecting human skin include the UV and visible wavelengths between 290 and 700 nm. In addition, the wavelengths beyond 700 nm in the infrared spectrum primarily emit heat and in certain circumstances may exacerbate the pathologic effects of energy in the UV and visible spectra.
The UV spectrum reaching the Earth represents <10% of total incident solar energy and is arbitrarily divided into two major segments, UV-B and UV-A, which constitute the wavelengths from 290 to 400 nm. UV-B consists of wavelengths between 290 and 320 nm. This portion of the photobiologic action spectrum is the most efficient in producing redness or erythema in human skin and thus is sometimes known as the “sunburn spectrum.” UV-A includes wavelengths between 320 and 400 nm and is ∼1000-fold less efficient in producing skin redness than is UV-B.
The wavelengths between 400 and 700 nm are visible to the human eye. The photon energy in the visible spectrum is not capable of damaging human skin in the absence of a photosensitizing chemical. Without the absorption of energy by a molecule, there can be no photosensitivity. Thus, the absorption spectrum of a molecule is defined as the range of wavelengths it absorbs, whereas the action spectrum for an effect of incident radiation is defined as the range of wavelengths that evoke the response.
Photosensitivity occurs when a photon-absorbing chemical (chromophore) present in the skin absorbs incident energy, becomes excited, and transfers the absorbed energy to various structures or to molecular oxygen.