UV radiation

Page Last modified 28 Jun 2022
4 min read
UV Radiation from the sun is a strong and ubiquitous risk factor for skin cancer and melanoma in Europe. UV Radiation affects particularly light-skinned populations and causes almost 4% of all cancer cases in Europe, and this trend is not abating. More awareness and basic prevention is needed to curb the incidence of UV-linked cancers.

UV radiation and cancer

Europeans are exposed to UV radiation (UVR), mostly from the sun but also from some artificial sources such as tanning beds and lamps (not covered in this report). Natural UVR is a strong and ubiquitous risk factor for various skin cancers, including malignant melanoma, a type of cancer that claims over 20,000 lives in Europe every year (Forsea, 2020). Affecting particularly light-skinned populations, around 70-90% of melanoma cases are attributable to UVR in Europe (Arnold et al., 2018). Although the incidence varies widely, UVR may be responsible for 3-3.8% of all cancer cases in Europe (Parkin et al., 2011; Brown et al., 2018; IARC, 2018; Tybjerg et al., 2022). Melanoma incidence has been increasing across Europe in the last few decades, although it has stabilised in younger groups in northern Europe (Forsea, 2020). According to recent estimates, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany had the highest rates of new melanoma cases in Europe in 2020 (Sung et al., 2021). Reducing natural UVR exposure is fundamental for preventing various types of skin cancer. Basic prevention measures include awareness-raising campaigns to reduce exposure to the sun, e.g. wearing appropriate clothing and using sunscreens, and providing specific advice for travellers to areas with high UVR levels. Certain types of occupations require additional preventive measures. However, the use of awareness-raising campaigns for skin cancer prevention, including limiting UVR exposure, is still low in Europe in general, and even lower in eastern European countries (Forsea, 2020).

Trends in exposure to UV radiation in Europe

Across Europe, UVR trends have varied significantly over the past decades, increasing in some subregions and decreasing in others. Climate change may increase UV exposure in some European subregions (EEA, 2021b). Rising temperatures associated with climate change may result in people spending more time outdoors and shedding protective clothing, leading to more UVR exposure. But when temperatures are very high, people spend less time outside than they do with small increases in temperature, thereby reducing their exposure to UVR (EEA, 2021b). Without additional prevention measures, an increase in UVR levels in Europe would be likely to result in an increase in skin cancer.

What the EU is doing about UV radiation

Although the 2006 EU Directive on Optical Radiation (2006/25/EC) defines limit values for workers’ exposure to artificial optical radiation to eyes and skin, it does not cover exposure to natural optical radiation (sunlight). However, the EU Framework Directive 89/391/EEC on workers’ protection states that the employer has a duty to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to their work (including natural optical radiation). The UVR exposure of the general population is not covered explicitly by EU directives or regulations (John et al., 2021). Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan aims to protect outdoor workers from risks arising from exposure at work, including UVR. The European Code Against Cancer calls upon citizens – including outdoor workers – to avoid too much sun and to use sun protection.


Arnold, M., et al., 2018, ‘Global burden of cutaneous melanoma attributable to ultraviolet radiation in 2012’,International Journal of Cancer143(6), pp. 1305-1314 (DOI: 10.1002/ijc.31527).

Brown, K. F., et al., 2018, ‘The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015’,British Journal of Cancer118(8), pp. 1130-1141 (DOI: 10.1038/s41416-018-0029-6).

EEA, 2021b, ‘Ultraviolet (UV) radiation’s effects on human health under the changing climate’, Climate-ADAPT (

Forsea, A.-M., 2020, ‘Melanoma epidemiology and early detection in Europe: diversity and disparities’, Dermatology Practical & Conceptual, pp. e2020033-e2020033 (DOI: 10.5826/dpc.1003a33).

IARC, 2018,Les cancers attribuables au mode de vie et à l’environnement en France métropolitaine, International Agency for Research on Cancer (

John, S. M., et al., 2021, ‘Improved protection of outdoor workers from solar ultraviolet radiation: position statement’, Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology35(6), pp. 1278-1284 (DOI: 10.1111/jdv.17011).

Parkin, D. M., et al., 2011, ‘The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010’,British Journal of Cancer105(Suppl 2), pp. S77-S81 (DOI: 10.1038/bjc.2011.489).

Sung, H., et al., 2021, ‘Global Cancer Statistics 2020: GLOBOCAN estimates of incidence and mortality worldwide for 36 cancers in 185 countries’, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians71(3), pp. 209-249 (DOI: 10.3322/caac.21660).

Tybjerg, A. J., et al., 2022, ‘Updated fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in Denmark in 2018’,Scientific Reports12(1), p. 549 (DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-04564-2).

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