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Ionizing (or ionising in British English) radiation is radiation that carries enough energy to free electrons from atoms or molecules, thereby ionizing them. Ionizing radiation is made up of energetic subatomic particles, ions or atoms moving at relativistic speeds, and electromagnetic waves on the high-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Gamma rays, X-rays, and the higher ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum are ionizing, whereas the lower ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light (including nearly all types of laser light), infrared, microwaves, and radio waves are considered non-ionizing radiation. The boundary between ionizing and non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation that occurs in the ultraviolet is not sharply defined, since different molecules and atoms ionize at different energies. Conventional definition places the boundary at a photon energy between 10 eV and 33 eV in the ultraviolet.

Typical ionizing subatomic particles from radioactivity include alpha particles, beta particles and neutrons. Almost all products of radioactive decay are ionizing because the energy of radioactive decay is typically far higher than that required to ionize. Other subatomic ionizing particles which occur naturally are muons, mesons, positrons, neutrons and other particles that constitute the secondary cosmic rays that are produced after primary cosmic rays interact with Earth's atmosphere. Cosmic rays may also produce radioisotopes on Earth (for example, carbon-14), which in turn decay and produce ionizing radiation.

Cosmic rays and the decay of radioactive isotopes are the primary sources of natural ionizing radiation on Earth referred to as background radiation.

In space, natural thermal radiation emissions from matter at extremely high temperatures (e.g. plasma discharge or the corona of the Sun) may be ionizing. Ionizing radiation may be produced naturally by the acceleration of charged particles by natural electromagnetic fields (e.g. lightning), although this is rare on Earth. Natural supernova explosions in space produce a great deal of ionizing radiation near the explosion, which can be seen by its effects in the glowing nebulae associated with them.

Ionizing radiation can also be generated artificially using X-ray tubes, particle accelerators, and any of the various methods that produce radioisotopes artificially.

Ionizing radiation is invisible and not directly detectable by human senses, so radiation detection instruments such as Geiger counters are required. However, ionizing radiation may lead to secondary emission of visible light upon interaction with matter, such as in Cherenkov radiation and radioluminescence.

Ionizing radiation is applied constructively in a wide variety of fields such as medicine, research, manufacturing, construction, and many other areas, but presents a health hazard if proper measures against undesired exposure aren't followed. Exposure to ionizing radiation causes damage to living tissue, and can result in mutation, radiation sickness, cancer, and death.


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