Most people are aware of the need to protect their skin from harmful damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. However, they may be unaware of the damage the sun can do to their eyes.
Eye Conditions Caused by Sun Damage
Both UV rays & blue light rays can cause ocular damage. While the harmful effects of these rays are 3x greater in the summer than in the winter, you still run a high risk of sustaining serious eye damage if you do NOT wear eye protection in the winter months. Exposure to these harmful rays without eye protection can lead to:
- Age Related Macular Degeneration
- Pterygia (tissue growths on the whites of the eyes)
- Skin Cancer near the eyes
- Photokeratitis (sunburn of the cornea)
- Children < 10 years of age
- People with Retinal Disorders
- Cataract Surgery Patients
- People taking medications that increase eye sensitivity to light
- People with lighter-pigmented eyes
Protecting Your Eyes from Sun Damage
Eye damage from the sun is cumulative over the course of your life. The more you are exposed to sunlight, the more likely you are to suffer permanent damage to your eyes. Studies have shown that UV rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m, so it is especially important to protect your eyes during these hours. The BEST way to protect your eyes is to wear sunglasses. However, all sunglasses will NOT provide you with equal protection from UV and blue light rays.
For MAXIMUM Sun Protection, look for sunglasses that:
- Block 99-100% of the UVA & UVB rays
- Block Blue Light Rays
- Contain Large lenses that fit close to your eyes.
Ultraviolet radiation is energy of a particular wavelength that spreads out (radiates) from it’s source (i.e. the sun) the way that spokes of a wheel radiate from the hub. The sun’s electromagnetic energy consists of UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. Short-wavelength UVC rays are blocked by the ozone layer that envelops the earth. Medium-wavelength UVB rays are those that cause sunburn and premature skin aging. Long-wavelength UVA rays are those that tan the skin. They are also emitted by tanning beds and sunlamps.
The eyelids limit the amount of light that can enter the eye, but their tissues are thin, delicate and vulnerable to the chronic effects of exposure to UV radiation. The eye’s surface, the cornea, admits light and screens out nearly ALL of the UVB radiation in sunlight, protecting the lens and the retina. The lens filters UVA radiation and absorbs light in order to focus on images.
Short-term Effects of UV Exposure
- Eye Irritation: exposure to the UV radiation in sunlight may cause ocular discomfort, but this minor irritation usually resolves quickly.
- Photokeratitis: a painful corneal burn caused by short-term exposure to UVB rays from any highly reflective surface, such as concrete, water, sand or snow. Tanning beds may also cause photokeratitis and goggles offer little protection. Photokeratitis lasts 1-2 days and may cause temporary vision loss. Long –term damage to the cornea and conjunctive may be linked to the condition.
Long-term Effects of UV Exposure
- Cataracts: a clouding of the lens, a transparent, layered structure that lies behind the iris. A cataract obscures vision by making objects look hazy. Scientists have theorized that decades of exposure to UVA radiation may cause the lens to discolor and harden into a cataract.
- Age-Related Macular Degeneration: destroys the macula, a cluster of light-sensitive cells in the retina that give you crisp central vision and allow you to perceive fine detail. New research suggests that long-term exposure to high-energy visible radiation (HEV) from the sun, sometimes called “blue light” may damage the macula. Some studies have found an association between exposure to UVA radiation and the development of AMD.
- Pterygium & Pinguecula: a pterygium is a thin, wedge-shaped growth of fibrous tissue extending from the corner of the eye to the cornea. A pterygium is NOT cancerous and grows slowly, but it may spread over the cornea enough to impair vision. If so, surgical removal may be required. A pinguecula is a yellowish patch or lump on the conjunctiva, the transparent membrane that covers the white part of the ey. More nodular in shapre than a pterygium, a pinguecula is a non-cancerous accumulation of protein and fat deposits. Like a pterygium, it grows slowly, but it does NOT invade the cornea.
- Cancer: Several kinds of eye and eyelid cancers are linked to excessive sunlight exposure. Basal cell carcinoma accounts for nearly 90% of all eyelid cancers. Only about 5% of eyelid cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Melanoma can occus on the skin near the eye or in the eye itself (ocular melanoma).
Protection from UV Radiation
UV protection can be incorporated into eyeglasses, sunglasses, contact lenses and even intraocular lens implants placed in the eye during cataract surgery. We can shield ourselves from sun damage in other ways too:
- Wear Sunglasses: Look for those that block 99% or more of the UVA and UVB radiation. The lenses should match in color and be free of flaws and distortions. Choose a wraparound style for the best UV protection, and make sure they allow good color recognition so that you can respond safely to traffic signals. Polarized leses will reduce glare when you’re in the snow, on the water, or driving.
- Wear UV blocking Contact Lenses: Contact lenses that incorporate UV-blocking optical materials offer added protection because they can filter out the UV rays that stray past hats and sunglasses.
- Wear a Hat: Broad-brimmed hats aren’t as high-tech as UV-blocking contact lenses, but they are very effective in shading your eyes, as well as your skin from solar radiation. In fact, a hat with a wide brim (3 inches or more) can block about 50% of the UV radiation from the sun and reduce the amount of sunlight that shines in around the edges of your sunglasses.
- Minimize Sun Exposure: Another simple, but effective, way to reduce your risk from UV exposure is to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when sunlight is most direct.
- Use Sunscreen: When applying sunscreen, don’t forget your face and eyelids. Apply sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher about 30 minutes before you engage in outdoor activities, and reapply it every couple of hours if you’re sweating or swimming.
- Protecting Your Kids:Nearly half the time we spend outside during our lives happens while we’re kids. In addition, children’s eyes aren’t as good at screening out UV rays as adult eyes are. Parents and guardians should purchase sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen for children and make sure they wear them. In choosing sunglasses, look for high-impact lenses that won’t break easily, and secure the glasses with a Velcro strap to make sure that they don’t get lost.