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UV radiation (exposure to sunlight/tanning beds) is known to cause cancer. How does this happen?

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Radiation is simply the sending out of energy from a source. Ultraviolet radiation is only one type of radiation that surrounds us every day. All of these types of radiation are considered to fall along a spectrum from those with the most energy (such as x-rays and gamma rays) to really low levels of energy (such as radio waves). The higher the energy, the more likely the radiation is to penetrate your body and to cause damage.

Ultraviolet radiation falls approximately in the middle of the spectrum. There are various types of ultraviolet radiation, and these types are further classified by how much energy they have. Higher levels of ultraviolet radiation are classified as ionizing radiation, which means that they have enough energy to remove an electron from an atom. This damages cells and DNA, which can lead to cancer.

Over time, the accumulation of all this cellular damage causes skin damage such as wrinkling and spots and can also change the DNA within cells enough that skin cancer takes root. The more time spent in sources of ultraviolet radiation (sunbathing, water sports, tanning beds, phototherapy, living in an area that receives a great deal of sunlight), the higher one's odds are of receiving a skin cancer diagnosis—most commonly basal cell and squamous cell cancers.

The American Cancer Society has designated ultraviolet radiation, solar radiation, and UV-emitting tanning devices as carcinogenic to humans. While sunlight (and therefore ultraviolet radiation) is healthy in moderation, care should be taken to protect one's skin from overexposure through wearing appropriate clothing, sunscreen, and avoiding times of day when ultraviolet radiation is especially intense. Decreasing daily exposure lessens the accumulation of cellular damage over time and therefore reduces one's risk of developing skin cancers.

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