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Penetrating ability of EM radiation

Different frequencies of EM radiation have different degrees of penetration. For example, if we take the human body as the object, visible light is reflected off the surface of the human body, ultra-violet light (from sunlight) damages the skin, but X-rays are able to penetrate the skin and bone and allow for pictures of the inside of the human body to be taken.

If we compare the energy of visible light to the energy of X-rays, we find that X-rays have a much higher frequency. Usually, electromagnetic radiation with higher frequency (energy) have a higher degree of penetration than those with low frequency.

Certain kinds of electromagnetic radiation such as ultra-violet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays are very dangerous. Radiation such as these are called ionising radiation. Ionising radiation transfers energy as it passes through matter, breaking molecular bonds and creating ions.

Excessive exposure to radiation, including sunlight, X-rays and all nuclear radiation, can cause destruction of biological tissue. Luckily, the Earth's atmosphere protects us and other living beings on Earth from most of the harmful EM radiation.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation and the skin

UVA and UVB are different ranges of frequencies for ultraviolet (UV) light. UVA and UVB can damage collagen fibres which results in the speeding up skin ageing. In general, UVA is the least harmful, but it can contribute to the ageing of skin, DNA damage and possibly skin cancer. It penetrates deeply and does not cause sunburn.

UVB light can cause skin cancer. The radiation excites DNA molecules in skin cells, resulting in possible cancerous mutations. In particular, the layer of ozone in the atmosphere protects us from UVB radiation. The connection between UVB radiation and cancer is one of the reasons for concern about the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere.

Ultraviolet radiation and the skin

As a defence against UV radiation, the body tans when exposed to moderate (depending on skin type) levels of radiation by releasing the brown pigment melanin. This helps to block UV penetration and prevent damage to the vulnerable skin tissue deeper down. Sun-tan lotion, often referred to as sunblock or sunscreen, partly blocks UV radiation and is widely available. These products have a sun protection factor (SPF) rating (usually indicated on the container) that indicate how much protection the product provides against UVB radiation. The SPF rating does not specify protection against UVA radiation. Some sunscreen lotion now includes compounds such as titanium dioxide which helps protect against UVA rays. Other UVA-blocking compounds found in sunscreen include zinc oxide and avobenzone.


What makes a good sunscreen?

  • UVB protection: Padimate O, Homosalate, Octisalate (octyl salicylate), Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate)

  • UVA protection: Avobenzone

  • UVA/UVB protection: Octocrylene, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, Mexoryl (ecamsule)

Another means to block UV is by wearing sun protective clothing. This is clothing that has a UPF rating that describes the protection given against both UVA and UVB.

Ultraviolet radiation and the eyes

High intensity UVB light can cause damage to the eyes and exposure can cause welder's flash (photo keratitis or arc eye) and may lead to cataracts and other medical issues.

Protective eyewear is beneficial to those who are working with or those who might be exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Given that light may reach the eye from the sides, full coverage eye protection is best. Ordinary, untreated glasses give some protection. Most plastic lenses give more protection than glass lenses. Some plastic lens materials, such as polycarbonate, block most UV. Most contact lenses help to protect the retina by absorbing UV radiation.


While X-rays are used significantly in medicine, prolonged exposure to X-rays can lead to cell damage and cancer.

For example, a mammogram is an X-ray of the human breast to detect breast cancer, but if a woman starts having regular mammograms when she is too young, her chances of getting breast cancer increases.



Due to their high energies, gamma-rays are able to cause serious damage when absorbed by living cells.

Gamma-rays are not stopped by the skin and can induce DNA alteration by interfering with the genetic material of the cell. DNA double-strand breaks are generally accepted to be the most biologically significant lesion by which ionising radiation causes cancer and hereditary disease.

A study done on Russian nuclear workers exposed to external whole-body gamma-radiation at high doses shows a link between radiation exposure and death from leukaemia, lung, liver, skeletal and other solid cancers.

Cellphones and microwave radiation


Photo by edans on Flickr

Cellphone radiation and health concerns have been raised, especially following the enormous increase in their use. This is because cellphones use electromagnetic waves in the microwave range. These concerns have induced a large body of research. Concerns about effects on health have also been raised regarding other digital wireless systems, such as data communication networks. In 2009 the World Health Organisation announced that they have found a link between brain cancer and cellphones. However, there is still no firm evidence for this and the link is tenuous at best. You can find out more at

Cellphone users are recommended to minimise their exposure to the radiation, by for example:

  1. Use hands-free to decrease the radiation to the head.

  2. Keep the mobile phone away from the body.

  3. Do not use a cellphone in a car without an external antenna.

Exercise 1: Penetrating ability of EM radiation

Indicate the penetrating ability of the different kinds of EM radiation and relate it to energy of the radiation.

Usually, radiation with higher energy levels (higher frequency and shorter wavelengths) have greater penetrating ability than radiation with lower energy.

Describe the dangers of gamma rays, X-rays and the damaging effect of ultra-violet radiation on skin.

Gamma rays have very high energy levels and can interact with genetic material in biological tissue.


Prolonged exposure to X-rays can damage living tissue and may cause cancer.


Ultra-violet radiation is absorbed by the skin and is damaging on skin cells. This is why we should wear sunscreen when we are going to be in the sun for extended periods.