Take the 2-minute tour ×
Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I guess that these questions were being asked by many people on the Northern Hemisphere during this summer (and other summers) and someone may give a nice, coherent answer. The general question is how many times more slowly one is getting suntan or damages his skin in the evening, relatively to the noon?

The Sun altitude (solar elevation angle) $\alpha_s$ apparently makes the ozone layer etc. look $1/\sin\alpha_s$ times thicker than when the Sun is directly above our head. Clearly, this makes the solar UV radiation weaker if we're further from the noon. So

  • is that right that a particular spectral line gets weakened by the factor of $\exp(-C_\lambda/ \sin\alpha_s)$?
  • is that true that the changes to the UV-B radiation are the most important ones because UV-A is almost completely transmitted and UV-C is almost completely blocked?
  • because 98% of the UV radiation is said to be absorbed by the atmosphere, one would expect that the exponential reduction above will be dramatic. However, sources suggest that the "total amount" of UV radiation is only suppressed by a power law, probably by $1/\sin^2\alpha_s$ (10% thicker atmosphere implies 20% less radiation). Where does it come from? Is it from some integration of the exponentially suppressed function over frequencies? What is the approximate integrand and how does the decreasing exponential become a power law?
  • is it OK to assume that all transmitted UV rays cause suntan and potential diseases at the same rate, I mean that the ratio of "suntan vs harm" obtained by a photon is constant, or is it true that softer UV rays are giving us suntan with less harm to the skin? That would imply that it's healthier to get suntan in the evening
  • above, it was assumed that the solar photons travel straight from the Sun. But does Rayleigh scattering matter here? UV photons could go via the shortest path through the atmosphere (velocity orthogonal to the ozone layer) and then reflect to our skin via Rayleigh scattering – in this way, they would effectively see the minimally thin ozone layer. Rayleigh scattering is probably substantial for UV radiation, isn't it? In this way, one could explain why the Sun seems more powerful in the evening than the exponentially decreasing formula suggests. In the evening, one could still be getting suntanned from "all directions" of the sky (all places where it's "blue").

Sorry for this mixture of facts, questions, and half-baked hypotheses. Please fix the claims that are incorrect. There seem to be many related questions above but I would really like to get some usable "rate of getting suntan" as a function of the Sun altitude.

share|improve this question
Not sure it helps, but here you have the UV index as a function of time, and you can get Sun angle (what you call "altitude") as a a function of time. But this would be valid just for NYC. At least you'd get an idea of the shape. –  anderstood Oct 29 '14 at 17:19

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.