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Photo-degradation is the alteration of materials by light. Typically, the term refers to the combined action of sunlight and air. Photo-degradation is usually oxidation and hydrolysis. Often photodegradation is avoided, since it destroys paintings and other artifacts. It is however partly responsible for remineralization of biomass and is used intentionally in some disinfection technologies.

Where photodegradation is important[edit]


The photodegradation of pesticides is of great interest because of the scale of agriculture and the intensive use of chemicals. Pesticides are however selected in part not to photodegrade readily in sunlight in order to allow them to exert their biocidal activity. Thus, additional modalities are implemented to enhance their photodegradation, including the use of photosensitizers, photocatalysts (e.g., titanium dioxide), and the addition of reagents such as hydrogen peroxide that would generate hydroxyl radicals that would attack the pesticides.[1]


The photodegradation of pharmaceuticals is of interest because they are found in many water supplies. They have deleterious effects on aquatic organisms including toxicity, endocrine disruption, genetic damage.[2] But also in the primary packaging material the photodegradation of pharmaceuticals has to be prevented. For this, amber glasses like FIOLAX® amber are commonly used to protect the pharmaceutical from UV radiation.


The protection of food from photodegradation is very important. Some nutrients, like beer for example, are affected by degradation when being exposed to sunlight. In the case of beer, the UV radiation causes a process, which entails the degradation of hop bitter compounds to 3-Methyl-2-buten-1-thiol and therefore changes the taste. As amber glass has the ability to absorb UV radiation, beer bottles are often made from this glass type to avoid this process.

Mechanism of photodegradation[edit]

Many organic chemicals are thermodynamically unstable in the presence of oxygen, however, their rate of spontaneous oxidation is slow at room temperature. In the language of physical chemistry, such reactions are kinetically limited. This kinetic stability allows the accumulation of complex environmental structures in the environment. Upon the absorption of light, triplet oxygen converts to singlet oxygen, a highly reactive form of the gas, which effects spin-allowed oxidations. In the atmosphere, the organic compounds are degraded by hydroxyl radicals, which are produced from water and ozone.[3]

Photochemical reactions are initiated by the absorption of a photon, typically in the wavelength range 290-700 nm (at the surface of the Earth). The energy of an absorbed photon is transferred to electrons in the molecule and briefly changes their configuration (i.e., promotes the molecule from a ground state to an excited state). The excited state represents what is essentially a new molecule. Often excited state molecules are not kinetically stable in the presence of O2 or H2O and can spontaneously decompose (oxidize or hydrolyze). Sometimes molecules decompose to produce high energy, unstable fragments that can react with other molecules around them. The two processes are collectively referred to as direct photolysis or indirect photolysis, and both mechanisms contribute to the removal of pollutants.

The United States federal standard for testing plastic for photo-degradation is 40 CFR Ch. I (7–1–03 Edition)PART 238

Protection against photodegradation[edit]

Photodegradation of plastics and other materials can be inhibited with additives, which are widely used. These additives include antioxidants, which interrupt degradation processes. Typical antioxidants are derivatives of aniline. Another type of additive are UV-absorbers. These agents capture the photon and convert it to heat. Typical UV-absorbers are hydroxy-substituted benzophenones, related to the chemicals used in sunscreen.[4]



  1. ^ Burrows, H.D.; Canle L, M.; Santaballa, J.A.; Steenken, S. (June 2002). "Reaction pathways and mechanisms of photodegradation of pesticides". Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology 67 (2): 71–108. doi:10.1016/S1011-1344(02)00277-4. 
  2. ^ Boreen, Anne L.; Arnold, William A.; McNeill, Kristopher (1 December 2003). "Photodegradation of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment: A review". Aquatic Sciences - Research Across Boundaries 65 (4): 320–341. doi:10.1007/s00027-003-0672-7. 
  3. ^ Walter Simmler "Air, 6. Photochemical Degradation" in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry 2011, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim.
  4. ^ Rainer Wolf, Bansi Lal Kaul "Plastics, Additives" in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry 2000, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim.


  • Castell, JV; Gomez-L, MJ; Miranda, MA; Morera, IM (2008), "Photolytic degradation of Ibuprofen. Toxicity of the isolated photoproducts on fibroblasts and erythrocytes", Photochemistry and Photobiology 46 (6): 991–96, doi:10.1111/j.1751-1097.1987.tb04882.x 
  • Salgado, R;Pereira, VJ; Carvalho, G; Soeiro, R; Gaffney, V; Almeida, C; Vale Cardoso, V; Ferreira, E; Benoliel, MJ; Ternes, TA; Oehmen, A; Reis, MAM; Noronha, JP (2013), "Photodegradation kinetics and transformation products of ketoprofen, diclofenac and atenolol in pure water and treated wastewater", Journal of Hazardous Materials (244-245): 516–52, doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2012.10.039 
  • Boltres, Bettine, "When glass meets pharma", ECV Editio Cantor, 2015, ISBN 978-3-87193-432-2