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What Is a UV Lamp?

By Ken Black
Updated May 16, 2024
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A UV lamp is a lamp specifically designed to emit light at the ultraviolet wavelength, which is generally not able to be seen by humans without special equipment. A UV lamp may do so in a number of different ways. For example, it is possible it will also produce visible light, but it can also operate using a black light.

The UV lamp can be used for a number of different purposes. In terrariums, these lamps are used so that plants and animals, especially reptiles, get enough of the required UV light they may need each day. Traditional artificial lighting may not offer enough light at the UV wavelength. If not, then plants which require UV light may begin to suffer.

They also have an entertainment value as well. At amusement parks and other places, an ultraviolet lamp can be used as a black light to create unusual glowing effects. These effects can also help reflect very vibrant colors, which have glowing phosphors that often react with invisible UV light.

A fluorescent ultraviolet lamp has an application as a tanning tool as well. Many tanning beds use such lamps to give artificial tans because UV light is what actually tans the skin in the natural environment. However, the tanning beds can offer UV light at a much higher concentration, thus quickening the time it takes to receive the desired tan level.

In addition to these entertainment and cosmetic applications, a UV lamp can also be used as a treatment tool for a number of different illnesses. While most UV light therapeutic tools are considered alternative forms of medicine, the use of an ultraviolet lamp, or lamps, to treat seasonal affective disorder, a mental illness, has been accepted in many mainstream practices. The theory behind the treatment for the seasonal disorder is that humans also need a certain amount of UV light and that may not be available in sufficient quantities during the winter months when people tend to spend less time outdoors and the days are shorter.

Those who are around UV lamps often should use some caution. The rays from this lamp can be just as harmful as the sun's rays if overexposure occurs. This could result in sunburn, premature aging of the skin and even skin cancer. The danger is especially potent for those who use tanning beds, according to the American Medical Association, which states that the beds do increase the risk for cancer.

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Discussion Comments

By sunnySkys — On Sep 27, 2011

@strawCake - UV lamps for tanning and UV lamps for treating seasonal affective disorder are different though. I've seen one of those seasonal affective disorder lamps, and it's way smaller than a tanning bed. I think your risk of developing cancer is much lower using a small lamp than it is if you exposure your whole body in a tanning bed!

By strawCake — On Sep 26, 2011

@NathanG - Your friends may only go to the tanning salon a few times a year, but I doubt it. It takes much more than one visit to get a tan! In order to get a tan, and then to maintain it, you have to go anywhere from once a week to a few times a week. This type of behavior definitely puts at person at risk for skin cancer!

I actually have a few friends who go tanning during the winter because they claim it makes them feel "happier." I suppose it makes sense because UV lamps are also used to treat seasonal affective disorder.

By ElizaBennett — On Sep 26, 2011

I have a very old copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and it suggests that for sore nipples, you should either expose them to sunlight or (I think) use a UV lamp. Apparently the UV rays help cracked nipples heal!

I doubt you would find a lot of doctors recommending that these days! Lansinoh seems more the way to go. Or those freezy gel pads you put in the freezer.

By allenJo — On Sep 25, 2011

@NathanG - As the article correctly points out, ultraviolet light will show you things that you normally can’t see with the human eye.

A friend of mine bought a portable UV lamp once, shortly after buying a new puppy, and she scanned the light over her new carpet. She was shocked.

Instantly she saw puppy urine stains all over the place. I told her maybe she should just learn to look at the world without ultraviolet light, but she is obsessive compulsive in her cleaning habits, kind of like Felix in the Odd Couple.

So she went to work, busily cleaning her carpet, until everything was squeaky clean under ultraviolet light.

By NathanG — On Sep 24, 2011

@David09 - I know a few ladies who go to the tanning salons a few times a year to get a tan; none of them have ever reported skin problems. But I don’t doubt that it’s a possibility.

I am more interested in the medical uses of ultraviolet lamps. A germicidal UV lamp for example makes a great work light in an area that you need to be clean for hygiene.

The UV light beams will kill the bacteria on any surfaces that receive the light. I think they would be very useful in doctor’s offices for example, or even at home where you need to work in a clean space, free of bacterial allergens and things like that.

By David09 — On Sep 24, 2011

I’ve never understood people who go to tanning salons to sit under these lamps and get their tans. Even without knowledge of the science behind it, I’ve always felt that there was something that was inherently dangerous about the whole thing.

Later I heard that people who used these tanning beds increased their risk of getting melanoma, skin cancer. For people who used them several times a year the risk of melanoma went up astronomically.

Seriously, is it worth it to expose yourself to that kind of risk for a tan? I think if you need a tan, our sun is a better source of energy for that, but even there you need to be careful and use the right kind of skin protection.

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