Ultraviolet Radiation Definition

Chemistry Glossary Definition of Ultraviolet Radiation

Ultraviolet light is invisible, but black lights or UV-lamps also emit some visible violet light.
Ultraviolet light is invisible, but black lights or UV-lamps also emit some visible violet light. Cultura RM Exclusive/Matt Lincoln / Getty Images

Ultraviolet radiation is another name for ultraviolet light. It is a part of the spectrum outside the visible range, just beyond the visible violet portion.

Key Takeaways: Ultraviolet Radiation

  • Ultraviolet radiation is also known as ultraviolet light or UV.
  • It is light with a shorter wavelength (longer frequency) than visible light, but longer wavelength than x-radiation. It has a wavelength between 100 nm and 400 nm.
  • Ultraviolet radiation is sometimes called black light because it is outside range of human vision.

Ultraviolet Radiation Definition

Ultraviolet radiation is electromagnetic radiation or light having a wavelength greater than 100 nm but less than 400 nm. It is also known as UV radiation, ultraviolet light, or simply UV. Ultraviolet radiation has a wavelength longer than that of x-rays but shorter than that of visible light. Although ultraviolet light is energetic enough to break some chemical bonds, it is not (usually) considered a form of ionizing radiation. The energy absorbed by molecules can provide the activation energy to start chemical reactions and may cause some materials to fluoresce or phosphoresce.

The word "ultraviolet" means "beyond violet". Ultraviolet radiation was discovered by the German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter in 1801. Ritter noticed invisible light beyond the violet portion of the visible spectrum darkened silver chloride treated paper more quickly than violet light. He called the invisible light "oxidizing rays", referring to the chemical activity of the radiation. Most people used the phrase "chemical rays" until the end of the 19th century, when "heat rays" became known as infrared radiation and "chemical rays" became ultraviolet radiation.

Sources of Ultraviolet Radiation

About 10 percent of the light output of the Sun is UV radiation. When sunlight enters the Earth's atmosphere, the light is about 50% infrared radiation, 40% visible light, and 10% ultraviolet radiation. However, the atmosphere blocks about 77% of solar UV light, mostly in shorter wavelengths. Light reaching the Earth's surface is about 53% infrared, 44% visible, and 3% UV.

Ultraviolet light is produced by black lights, mercury-vapor lamps, and tanning lamps. Any sufficiently hot body emits ultraviolet light (black-body radiation). Thus, stars hotter than the Sun emit more UV light.

Categories of Ultraviolet Light

Ultraviolet light is broken into several ranges, as described by ISO standard ISO-21348:

Name Abbreviation Wavelength (nm) Photon Energy (eV) Other Names
Ultraviolet A UVA 315-400 3.10–3.94 long-wave, black light (not absorbed by ozone)
Ultraviolet B UVB 280-315 3.94–4.43 medium-wave (mostly absorbed by ozone)
Ultraviolet C UVC 100-280 4.43–12.4 short-wave (completely absorbed by ozone)
Near ultraviolet NUV 300-400 3.10–4.13 visible to fish, insects, birds, some mammals
Middle ultraviolet MUV 200-300 4.13–6.20
Far ultraviolet FUV 122-200 6.20–12.4
Hydrogen Lyman-alpha H Lyman-α 121-122 10.16–10.25 spectral line of hydrogen at 121.6 nm; ionizing at shorter wavelengths
Vacuum ultraviolet VUV 10-200 6.20–124 absorbed by oxygen, yet 150-200 nm can travel through nitrogen
Extreme ultraviolet EUV 10-121 10.25–124 actually is ionizing radiation, although absorbed by the atmosphere

Seeing UV Light

Most people cannot see ultraviolet light, however, this is not necessarily because the human retina can't detect it. The lens of the eye filters UVB and higher frequencies, plus most people lack the color receptor to see the light. Children and young adults are more likely to perceive UV than older adults, but people missing a lens (aphakia) or who have had a lens replaced (as for cataract surgery) may see some UV wavelengths. People who can see UV report it as a blue-white or violet-white color.

Insects, birds, and some mammals see near-UV light. Birds have true UV vision, as they have a fourth color receptor to perceive it. Reindeer are an example of a mammal that sees UV light. They use it to see polar bears against snow. Other mammals use ultraviolet to see urine trails to track prey.

Ultraviolet Radiation and Evolution

Enzymes used to repair DNA in mitosis and meiosis are believed to have developed from early repair enzymes that were designed to fix damage caused by ultraviolet light. Earlier in Earth's history, prokaryotes could not survive on the Earth's surface because exposure to UVB caused adjacent thymine base pair to bind together or form thymine dimers. This disruption was fatal to the cell because it shifted the reading frame used to replicate genetic material and produce proteins. Prokaryotes that escaped protective aquatic life developed enzymes to repair thymine dimers. Even though the ozone layer eventually formed, protecting cells from the worst of the solar ultraviolet radiation, these repair enzymes remain.


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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Ultraviolet Radiation Definition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/definition-of-ultraviolet-radiation-604675. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). Ultraviolet Radiation Definition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-ultraviolet-radiation-604675 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Ultraviolet Radiation Definition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-ultraviolet-radiation-604675 (accessed June 9, 2023).