The center of this confusion is the sun's ultraviolet A (long-wave) and ultraviolet B (shortwave) rays. Our understanding of exactly what kinds of damage each causes to the skin, and how best to protect ourselves, seems to shift every year as new research comes out. For example, it was once thought that only UVB was of concern, but we keep learning more and more about the damage caused by UVA. And new, improved forms of protection against UVA keep emerging. Keeping up with these new developments is a worthwhile challenge that can help all of us prevent sun damage.
UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic (light) spectrum that reaches the earth from the sun. It has wavelengths shorter than visible light, making it invisible to the naked eye. These wavelengths are classified as UVA, UVB, or UVC, with UVA the longest of the three at 320-400 nanometers (nm, or billionths of a meter). UVA is further divided into two wave ranges, UVA I, which measures 340-400 nanometers (nm, or billionths of a meter), and UVA II which extends from 320-340 nanometers. UVB ranges from 290 to 320 nm. With even shorter rays, most UVC is absorbed by the ozone layer and does not reach the earth.
Both UVA and UVB, however, penetrate the atmosphere and play an important role in conditions such as premature skin aging, eye damage (including cataracts), and skin cancers. They also suppress the immune system, reducing your ability to fight off these and other maladies.