UV photography reveals our sun-damaged selves

A new study of hundreds of middle-schoolers uses ultraviolet-imaging technology to show that sun damage can happen early in life.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read
A 35-year-old melanoma survivor agrees to share photos that Dellavalle's team took comparing her skin under normal light and ultraviolet light. University of Colorado Cancer Center

Sometimes we need to see to believe. I remember understanding on an intellectual level, from a young age, that smoking was bad, but I didn't really get it on a visceral level until I saw a smoker's blackened lungs. The effect was so profound that, to this day, I go so far as to hold my breath when walking past people smoking.

Unfortunately, it's not easy to peer inside our own bodies and check out the health of our lungs. It's also difficult to see the effects sun exposure is having on our skin, especially when a tan can look so deceptively like a healthy glow. For years, one of the best-known tools to view sun damage has been both expensive and largely untested: ultraviolet photography.

But while UV photography remains expensive, researchers at the University of Colorado have recently tested its use as a tool in the fight against cancer. The researchers studied the assumption that actual signs of susceptibility to melanoma cancer -- things like freckles, red hair, blue eyes, and/or pale skin -- would point to skin markings of a particular severity seen via UV photography. They report in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology that is indeed the case.

Out of the nearly 600 12-year-old boys and girls studied, those with signs of susceptibility were also those with the most visible spots in the UV photographs.

Because light that's visible to the human eye falls into the 400- to 750-nanometer range (the spectrum used in normal photography), photos using UV light (covering the range from roughly 1 to 400 nanometers) as the flash source can reveal markings not visible to the naked eye.

By snapping a photo using near UV light as the flash -- which dermatologist and study co-author Robert Dellavalle says is the equivalent of being exposed to one second of sunlight -- ugly and gruesome details can be revealed, even in preteens.

"Some of the kids are really freaked out and don't want to look at the images at all, so I tell them to look at their inner zombie," Dellavalle says. "This is like seeing your lung black, and appearances have a big impact at this time of life."

Dellavalle says UV photos have revealed skin damage in children as young as 2. "Even I, as a dermatologist doing sun protection for years, am affected by these images," he says. "I know I can do a better job."

If only the technology weren't so cost-prohibitive. The system Dellavalle and his team used, Canfield's Visia Complexion Analysis, can cost upward of $20,000. Since the best intervention may involve photographing students in schools before they are of the age to turn to tanning beds or reject hats and sun block, the price could prove a major roadblock.

And before those of us with darker complexions and fewer freckles bask in the glow of our reduced risk factors, these findings are a reminder that just because we don't look like we burn as easily doesn't mean our naked eyes are seeing the complete picture.