UV Light: Bad for Viruses, Worse for Skin
Our board-certified dermatologists at Genesis Dermatology have often warned you about the dangers of ultraviolet radiation on your skin. The UVA and UVB wavelengths of sunlight produce both immediate and long-term damage to the skin, including deadly skin cancers.
Now there’s another type of UV light that we want to caution you about: UVC. This has become popular in recent weeks as another desperate attempt to find any method that will arrest the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, stop the illnesses and deaths, and let us resume our normal lives. We hope researchers find a magic bullet like that soon, but treatment with UVC light on the body isn’t it.
The third type of light
Besides UVA and UVB rays, the lesser-known, highest-energy wavelength in the sun’s light spectrum is UVC, which is normally stopped from reaching the earth by the earth’s protective ozone layer. After scientists in 1878 found it could be produced artificially and used to sterilize everything from factories to water, it became the go-to treatment for disinfecting surfaces.
UVC light has been employed successfully in hospitals to cut the rate of disease transmission for such illnesses as MRSA, which is notoriously difficult to eradicate from surfaces. China is currently using it to disinfect buses at night. These light waves destroy bacteria and viruses by disrupting their DNA.
But on the skin? Absolutely not. Because the UVC light would not only burn the skin within seconds but disrupt the person’s genetic material, as well, just as it does to bacteria and viruses.
“You would literally be frying people,” Dan Arnold told the BBC recently. Arnold works for UV Light Technology, a company that manufactures UVC light equipment used in disinfecting hospitals, food manufacturing facilities, and pharmaceutical companies.
He also shot down such ideas as stationing one of his products at the doors of supermarkets and having shoppers stand under it as they enter.
“UVC is really nasty stuff,” he said. “You shouldn’t be exposed to it. It can take hours to get a sunburn from UVB, but with UVC it takes seconds. If your eyes are exposed . . . you know that gritty feeling you get if you look at the sun? It’s like that times 10, just after a few seconds.”
Jim Malley, an environmental engineer at the University of New Hampshire, echoed Arnold’s warning.
“You don’t really get a second chance [at determining whether UVC light is too dangerous],” he told the Los Angeles Times. With a high-enough dose from a commercial decontamination system, “that kind of UV damage would be so intense that you’d lose your sight.”
This doesn’t mean that researchers aren’t exploring the ways this wavelength might be able to slow or halt the coronavirus.
A researcher at Columbia University announced last month that he has discovered a safer type of UVC light, called far-UVC, a narrower band of UVC light. This light is a much narrower spectrum of UVC light, which appears in early trials to kill airborne viruses without harming humans.
“Far-UVC light has a very limited range and cannot penetrate through the outer dead-cell layer of human skin or the tear layer in the eye, so it’s not a human health hazard,” lead researcher David Brenner said in a university news release.
However, “because viruses and bacteria are much smaller than human cells, far-UVC light can reach their DNA and kill them,” he explained. “We saw we can kill 99 percent of the virus with a very low dose of far-UVC light.”
Several lamps using far-UVC light are in production and awaiting approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to ABC News, which reported that they probably won’t be available until the end of the year. And the FDA has already taken action against at least two companies for marketing such devices using unverified technology.
For the many of the pop-up products on the market, it’s definitely a case of buyer beware, not only because they may not work, but because they can give a false sense of security to the user who thinks they’re now safe from infection.
Don’t try this at home
Still, people continue to speculate about using sunlight to remove the virus from the body. While sunlight does deactivate germs on surfaces, it takes hours to achieve this effect, even at the latitudes here in Jupiter. Nor will it kill germs already inside the body, and there is no way to “inject” this light into the body to target the coronavirus.
Sunlight, as we have reminded you many times, can cause wrinkles, brown spots, uneven skin tone, and—eventually—skin cancer.
We’d all love a quick-and-easy solution to the pandemic, but our board-certified dermatologists recommend that, for now, the only known methods to keep it in check are those you’ve heard many times:
- frequent hand washing
- social distancing of at last six feet
- staying at home as much as possible
Please let us know if you have any questions.
May is skin cancer awareness month so if you are social distancing in the beautiful sunny weather make sure you wear your sunblock and sun protection clothing. All of our sunblock, hats, and SPF shirts are 20% off the month of May.