The sun – we love it and look forward to seeing it in the spring and after a string of cloudy days. Like all things, moderation is key. Sunlight provides an excellent source of vitamin D, but too much sun can cause your skin to burn. Your eyes can handle some time in the sun without sunglasses, yet too much of the sun’s UV exposure has negative effects on your eyes and vision, potentially causing short-term and long-term damage. Sunlight is made up of two types of harmful rays, long wave ultraviolet A (UV-A) and short wave ultraviolet B (UV-B). Everyone is different, so there is no magic time limit. The amount of pigment in our skin and eyes determine the amount of natural protection we have.
Short-term Effects of Excessive UV Rays on Unprotected Eyes
If your unprotected eyes are exposed to excessive amounts of UV rays over a short period of time, you could experience a sunburn of the eye, called photokeratitis, or ultraviolet keratitis. Artificial sources such as a welding arc, tanning bed, or laser can also cause photokeratitis. Depending on the severity of the sunburn, it is usually temporary but can be painful. It can cause dryness and irritation, a gritty feeling in the eyes, and extra sensitivity to light. The symptoms rarely cause permanent damage if exposure to UV rays was limited to the front part of the eye – the cornea.
Long-term Exposure to UV Rays Cause Chronic Eye Conditions
Over time, too much unprotected exposure to the sun’s UV-A and UV-B rays make your eyes vulnerable to chronic conditions such as premature cataracts, and early macular degeneration. Free radicals are constantly forming in the body and are the normal byproduct of aging as well as environmental exposure. We can control some of our environmental exposures, but it is almost impossible to avoid all the ways we eat and breathe chemicals.
Some of the ways we can control our exposure of free radicals – and reduce the risk for macular degeneration and other eye diseases – is to avoid any exposure, wear UV and blue light blocking sunglasses, and include dark green leafy vegetables and anti-inflammatory foods in your diet.
6 Tips to Protect Your Eyes From the Sun
- Never stare at the sun! Both the front of the eye can burn, as well as the retina. A sunburned retina can cause damage to the macula, causing macular degeneration – you lose central vision and see dark spots. This damage is not reversible, however, progression can be slowed with a proper diet and supplements. Your optometrist or ophthalmologist may prescribe medications.
- Wear protective sunglasses; they are your best defense! Choose a pair that states they block 100% of both UV-A and UV-B rays, and screen out 75-90% of visible light. Blue light blocking sunglasses are also beneficial and make it easier to see objects in the distance. You may need more than one pair of sunglasses depending on your activities. For example, polarized lenses reduce glare that bounces off snow or water, polycarbonate lenses are more durable for eye-hazardous work or sports, and single or double-gradient lenses are recommended for driving or participating in sports.
- If your eyes are sensitive to light or you want the convenience of one pair of glasses, consider transition lenses. Transition lenses are clear when you are inside but become darker when exposed to UV light outside. The drawback is they don’t usually get as dark as a pair of traditional sunglasses and it can take a few minutes for them to become clear again after you go inside. Transition lenses also do not become dark in a car because windshields are made to block most of the UV light.
- Never wear cheap sunglasses! There is no value in low-cost, low-quality sunglasses because they do not filter UV rays. Instead, they act as a UV window with your enlarged pupils. Babies, kids, teens, and adults should avoid cheap sunglasses. If the label specifically acknowledges that they filter UV-A and UV-B rays, it is better than none. However, labs show a wide disparity in equal protection on the lenses, depending on the quality.
- Don’t forget sunglass protection for children and teenagers, they typically spend more time in the sun than adults. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat or baseball cap in addition to sunglasses increases their eye protection from the sun.
- Wear sunglasses year-round, even in the winter. We don’t often think about wearing sunglasses in Minnesota in the winter because many of us spend as little time outside as possible. When participating in winter sports, clearing snow, ice fishing, or playing in the snow, remember the same harmful UV rays reflect off the bright white snow.
Healthy Eyes (and Skin) Are Always In Style
Sunglasses help protect your vision in the short-term and the long-term, and they also help protect your eyelids and the skin around your eyes. Sunburned skin is at higher risk for squamous cell and basal cell cancers. In addition to that, UV-A rays cause wrinkling, giving you one more reason to protect the skin around your eyes.
Remember looks aren’t the only thing. Instead of just buying fashionable sunglasses this summer, it is more important to look for the best eye protection. Keep your eyes free from sun damage and do what you can to keep them disease-free in the future. Healthy eyes are always in style. A great pair of sunglasses look fantastic on you – and protect one of your most important assets – the ability to see.
Read the How-To Guide When Selecting Sunglasses for more details on choosing the right type of frame and lens options for your lifestyle.