What happened to our ozone layer?

 In Health

Although we’re now heading into the heart of winter in New Zealand, many individuals are still concerned about the hole in the ozone layer above our country and make time for a regular skin or mole check. So, what are the risks of the ozone hole and what can you do to protect yourself? Read on for our top safety tips.

What is the ozone layer?

The ozone layer is a level high in the Earth’s stratosphere, encircling the planet and absorbing the dangerous and potent ultraviolet radiation emitted by our sun. Ozone (O₃) is an allotropic form of oxygen that largely makes up the layer, containing three oxygen atoms instead of the two that form oxygen molecules down here on earth (O₂). Remarkably, ozone molecules are actually formed by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which breaks apart some O₂ molecules and bonds the oxygen atoms to others, transforming them into the O₃ which we rely on for the protection of our planet.

What happened to the ozone layer?

In the late 1970s, scientists studying the makeup of the Earth’s stratosphere noticed two worrying trends when it came to the ozone layer: first, the total amount of ozone protecting the earth had steadily declined by a total level of about 4 per cent, and second, the polar regions of the earth – which include Australia and New Zealand – were experiencing an annual decrease in the level of ozone protecting them. Essentially, an ‘ozone hole’ would open up, meaning through spring and summer they were at greater risk from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

The cause of this change was an increased use of man-made chemicals, later found to deplete ozone: CFCs, halons, and other chemicals that had become widely used in the booming industry of the 20th Century. However, after information spread about the damage to the ozone layer and the risks that would become evident over time, 46 countries – now including 200 signatories – came together to sign the Montreal Protocol in 1987 banning these chemicals. While ozone levels have already slowly recovered since the ban came into effect, it’s expected that the damage to the ozone layer won’t be fully undone until after 2075.

How does this relate to my skin?

Major issues can arise from exposure to ultraviolet rays. There’s an increased risk of developing several different types of non-melanoma skin cancer such as basal and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as a heightened chance of developing malignant melanoma. Furthermore, direct exposure to radiation can lead to cataracts, a disease that clouds the lens of your eye, as well as photokeratitis, often known as snow blindness, which can cause extreme pain, blurry vision, swelling, and redness of the cornea.

Adding to these major risks, ultraviolet radiation can also impair your immune and respiratory systems, and accelerate the ageing of your skin. Between skin cancer and these other threats, exposing your skin to ultraviolet rays is incredibly dangerous. If you’ve led a life in the sun, getting a full skin check or mole check is always the right move to make sure your skin is healthy and undamaged.

How do I protect myself from UV radiation?

Ultraviolet radiation is strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so the best way to avoid unnecessary exposure to the sun’s rays is to limit your time outside between these hours. When you are outside, however, it’s important to wear clothing that covers your skin: tightly woven fabrics will do this job best, and nowadays many companies make specialised summer clothing designed to protect you from UV rays.

Sunscreen is also important, however it’s crucial to use it as part of your overall SunSmart strategy, and not your only method of protection. Finally, a brimmed hat and sunglasses will protect your eyes and the skin around your head, as these areas are otherwise at direct risk of exposure. There’s always more that you can do to protect yourself, and a skin or mole check will provide peace of mind that you’re not at risk of skin cancer or other dangerous effects of UV rays.

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