The sun's rays aren't all the same (and what that means for you)

The sun's rays aren't all the same (and what that means for you)

When it comes to sun, you know that being outdoors in the sunshine is really good for you. You also know that the sun can burn you, age you prematurely, and even cause cancer.

It’s confusing.

It gets more complicated when you start hearing about the details: UVA, UVB, and IRA rays. What do these initials mean? And why are they important?

Let's dive in. 

Rays from the sun are not all the same.

These rays are different lengths and, because of this, are able to penetrate and affect different layers of the skin. What they do when they get there is why they’re important to you.

UVB Rays

UVB rays penetrate the outer layer of skin, known as the epidermis, and this is where the most visible (at least immediately), results of too much sun are seen. As in sunburns.

How much sun is too much depends on the thickness of your skin and how much pigment you naturally have. Darker skin tones are less susceptible to having the outer layers burn.

A tan is a signal that there’s been some sun damage. It’s your body’s attempt to protect your skin from more damage.

“Your skin is trying to put up little umbrellas (either freckles or an even tan) over the DNA, trying to protect it,” says David McDaniel, MD, FAAD, and director of the Institute of Anti-Aging Research.

If  you get more sun than your natural defenses can handle, your body mounts an inflammatory response. You get the redness, tenderness, and possible blistering of a sunburn.

The UVB rays that burn your skin also damage DNA. Over time and with repeated insults, your natural repair system becomes less able to fix DNA damage and things like moles, dark spots, and skin cancer can result.

But…UVB rays are also responsible for stimulating your body to make vitamin D (so getting some is really important).

When the sun hits your skin, it manufactures vitamin D. The sun’s UVB rays  interact with a protein called 7-DHC in the skin. This interaction produces vitamin D3, the active form of vitamin D.


I’m going to talk more about this process and where sunscreen fits in in next week’s post.

UVA Rays

UVA rays penetrate deeper into your skin and reach the dermis. This is the middle  layer that contains a lot of your body’s water supply and supports the epidermis (outer layers) with blood supply, nerve endings, and structure-collagen and elastin.

The sneaky thing about UVA rays is that they penetrate glass so you can get deep skin damage without even knowing-like when you’re driving your care or sitting by a sunny window.

Unfun fact: the left side of most people’s faces looks slightly older than the right because of years of UVA damage through the driver’s side window of their cars.

Overexposure to UVA rays breaks down collagen and elastin and is responsible for those signs of premature aging that might be appearing on your face and neck: sagging skin, wrinkles, fine lines. Sun damage of this type is responsible for 90% of the signs of aging.

This is actually good news. It’s something you can control.  By limiting your exposure to UVA rays, you can enjoy the outdoors and still maintain skin health.

IRA Rays

Infrared -A rays (IRA) penetrate even deeper than UVA rays. They’re responsible the heat you feel from the sun’s rays. About 10% of solar radiation is UV, 40% is visible light, and 50% is infrared light.


You may have seen some marketing touting various products that block IRA rays. The question is, is this really something you want to do?

IRA rays are tricky. They can be your friend or they can be your enemy depending on how much and what kind of IRA exposure you’re getting. And there’s a lot of research still to be done.

The bottom line (as it seems now based on research sources listed below) is that too much heat over too long a period of time can cause skin damage. This can be seen on the arms of bakers that continually reach onto hot ovens or glass blowers.

But… some IRA exposure seems to help the skin and at least two National Institutes of Health studies1,2 have found that moderate IRA exposure can actually help stimulate collagen and elastin and increase the body’s defenses against damaging UV rays.

What’s a girl to do?

Here’s a suggestion from the conclusion of  the study “Infrared and Skin: Friend or Foe” 1:

“One could therefore assume that early morning “sun salutation” (surya namaskar) and late afternoon procrastination on the beach are actually natural PBM treatments to prevent and repair, respectively. Consequently, if your shadow is taller than you are (in the early morning and late afternoon) you're taking advantage of the beneficial effects of IR-A while avoiding peak harmful UVR [60, 61]. Ultimately, it is another way of being sun smart.”


(UVR is UVA and UVB rays from the sun.)


Using the right skincare can limit your exposure to UV rays and help guard against skin damage from possible IRA free radical damage. 

Sunscreen. Broad-spectrum sunscreen blocks both UVA and UVB rays to protect your skin from damage. Mineral sunscreens (zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide) are naturally broad spectrum. They give effective protection and don’t damage the environment or leech into your blood stream.


Antioxidants. Antioxidants are key to skin health and beauty. They fight and neutralize the free radicals produced by the sun and environmental exposure. They’re the best defense against damage by IRA rays and can help your sunscreen work against UV rays (antioxidants alone don’t protect against UV rays). Vitamin C, plant stem cells, berry extracts, adaptogenic herbs, and CoQ10 are antioxidants.


Adaptogenic herbs. Gotu Kola, reishi mushroom, green tea, ashwaganda, rhodiola. These magic ingredients help your skin stay strong and balanced. This means fighting environmental stress and free radicals while soothing and promoting the health of the cells.


Nourishing oils and butters. These luscious ingredients not only nourish skin and combat dryness but work to protect the skin’s barrier and maintain skin health and moisture.

SunWindSnow’s morning routine products are formulated to work together to give you UV and antioxidant protection while also protecting your skin barrier against the elements.

Try them every day this summer and see how much better your skin will look and feel.

Here’s what I recommend:

All-Weather Defense SPF 30 and SPF 15 lip balm are organic, mineral based sunscreens that are jam-packed with nourishing butters to keep your skin and lips soft and comfy.


DewDrops Vitamin C and Stem Cell Serum sinks in deep and fights the free radical damage that dulls your skin and contributes to fine lines.


SunUp Antioxidant Day Moisturizer is a light (but super effective) cream that’s chock-full of antioxidants to protect your face from drying and damaging environmental stressors like sun, wind, snow, or artificial heat or air conditioning.






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