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6.2: Solar Energy - UVA, UVB, UVC

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    Solar energy (sunlight) contains light we can see, and some we cannot. Visible light has wavelengths of 750 to 400 nm. Ultraviolet (UV) light has shorter wavelengths, cannot be seen, and has higher energy. Infrared (IR) radiation is the major source of heat for Earth. Though UV is a fraction of sunlight, it can be damaging to living organisms. All of these are forms of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum.


    Just as visible light components have names (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), so do the types of UV light: UV-A, UV-B, UV-C and vacuum-UV. UV-A has lowest energy and is least damaging; UV-A is also called “black light.” UV-B and UV-C have higher energies and can cause break bonds of molecules, causing changes in DNA and thus skin cancers.

    The majority of UV-B is absorbed by ozone in the stratosphere. Though UV-C is most damaging, it is totally absorbed by oxygen and ozone. In recent years, depletion of the ozone layer has allowed more UV light to reach us, resulting in more cases of skin cancers. Consequently, we have become aware of the need to protect ourselves from UV light.

    What protects us from UV light? One strategy would be to avoid exposure to any type of sunlight. Since we cannot avoid sunlight while outdoors, we can physically or chemically block the sun. A wide variety of commercial sunscreens are available with sun protection factors (SPF) ranging from SPF 2 to SPF 100. These lotions contain organic molecules that absorb UV light. Some materials, such as glass and plastic also absorb UV light, while still allowing visible light through.

    UV light type


    Relative Energy



    320 – 400 nm

    lowest energy

    reaches Earth in greatest amount


    280 – 320 nm

    higher energy than UV-A, but less than UV-C

    most is absorbed by ozone


    200 – 280 nm

    highest energy

    absorbed by ozone and oxygen

    1. What is the difference between UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C light?
    2. Compare the energies of UV light to IR and visible light. Explain why UV light is potentially more dangerous than IR or visible light.
    3. Most sunscreen lotions claim to protect against UV-A and UV-B. Why don’t they mention UV-C light?

    This page titled 6.2: Solar Energy - UVA, UVB, UVC is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Santa Monica College.

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