ultraviolet radiation, invisible electromagnetic radiation between visible violet light and X rays; it ranges in wavelength from about 400 to 4 nanometers and in frequency from about 1015 to 1017 hertz. It is a component (less than 5%) of the sun's radiation and is also produced artificially in arc lamps, e.g., in the mercury arc lamp.
The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight is divided into three bands: UVA (320–400 nanometers), which can cause skin damage and may cause melanomatous skin cancer; UVB (280–320 nanometers), stronger radiation that increases in the summer and is a common cause of sunburn and most common skin cancer; and UVC (below 280 nanometers), the strongest and potentially most harmful form. Much UVB and most UVC radiation is absorbed by the ozone layer of the atmosphere before it can reach the earth's surface; the depletion of this layer is increasing the amount of ultraviolet radiation that can pass through it. The radiation that does pass through is largely absorbed by ordinary window glass or impurities in the air (e.g., water, dust, and smoke) or is screened by clothing.
The National Weather Service's daily UV index predicts how long it would take a light-skinned American to get a sunburn if exposed, unprotected, to the noonday sun, given the geographical location and the local weather. It ranges from 1 (about 60 minutes before the skin will burn) to a high of 10 (about 10 minutes before the skin will burn).
A small amount of sunlight is necessary for good health. Vitamin D is produced by the action of ultraviolet radiation on ergosterol, a substance present in the human skin and in some lower organisms (e.g., yeast), and treatment or prevention of rickets often includes exposure of the body to natural or artificial ultraviolet light. The radiation also kills germs; it is widely used to sterilize rooms, exposed body tissues, blood plasma, and vaccines.
Ultraviolet radiation can be detected by the fluorescence it induces in certain substances. It may also be detected by its photographic and ionizing effects. The long-wavelength, "soft" ultraviolet radiation, lying just outside the visible spectrum, is often referred to as black light; low intensity sources of this radiation are often used in mineral prospecting and in conjunction with bright-colored fluorescent pigments to produce unusual lighting effects.
See L. R. Koller, Ultraviolet Radiation (2d ed. 1965).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.