Protect your eyes and prevent cataracts | Top tips to shield your eyes from the sun

We are more aware than ever of the risk of sunburn and skin cancer from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. We all use sunscreen to protect our skin, our options for skin protection are limitless; but it is easy to forget that we need to protect our eyes as well. We must all take steps to protect our eyes, to prevent cataracts and other forms of vision loss.

Summertime means more time spent outdoors, and studies show that exposure to bright sunlight may increase the risk of developing cataracts and growths on the eye, including cancer. Extended exposure to the sun’s UV rays has also been linked to macular degeneration, pingueculae, pterygia and photokeratitis which can cause temporary vision loss. (The same risk applies when using tanning beds, so be sure to protect your eyes from indoor UV light as well.)

But some people are unaware that there are other forms of radiation from the sun that can harm your eyes. New research suggests that exposure to the sun’s high-energy visible (HEV) radiation (“blue light”) may increase your long-term risk of macular degeneration. People with low blood plasma levels of vitamin C and other antioxidants especially appear at risk of retinal damage from HEV radiation.

Risk factors

Most of us realise that staring into the sun for long periods of time isn’t good for our long-term vision. But its rays actually reach our eyes in a variety of ways. Fresh snow, for instance, reflects as much as 80% of UV radiation, which means we can damage our eyes even by looking down. Sea foam reflects about 25% of UV radiation and dry sand about 15%. Even grass, soil and water reflect UV rays.

The risks of eye damage from UV and HEV exposure change with day-to-day conditions and depends on several factors, including:

  • Geographic location
  • Altitude
  • Time of day
  • Medications

Surprisingly, cloud cover doesn’t affect UV levels significantly. Your risk of UV exposure can be quite high even on overcast days.

Age also plays a part…

It’s especially important for children to protect their eyes from the sun. Research suggests that because children tend to spend significantly more time outdoors, up to half of a person’s lifetime exposure to UV radiation can occur by age 18. (Research cited by The Skin Cancer Foundation indicates almost 25 percent of our lifetime exposure to UV radiation is sustained during childhood.) Additionally, children are more vulnerable to retinal damage from UV rays because the lens inside a child’s eye is clearer than an adult lens, enabling more UV to penetrate further into the eye.

Prevent cataracts and protect your eyes from the sun’s rays with quality sunglasses

According to a national Sun Safety Survey conducted by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, only about half of people who wear sunglasses say they check the UV rating before buying. The good news is you can easily protect your eyes from the sun’s harmful UV and HEV rays, by looking for sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays and that also absorb most HEV rays. It is also important to protect as much of the delicate skin around your eyes as possible, look for sunglasses with large lenses or a close-fitting wraparound style. Depending on your outdoor lifestyle, you may also want to consider performance or sport sunglasses.

You might find it surprising that the amount of UV protection sunglasses provide is unrelated to the colour / darkness of the lenses. For example, a light amber-coloured lens can provide the same UV protection as a dark grey lens. Your optician can verify that the lenses you choose provide 100 percent UV protection.

But for HEV protection, colour does matter. Most sunglass lenses that block a significant amount of blue light will be bronze, copper or reddish-brown.

Sunglasses with a CE mark show that they are made to an agreed European standard. There is also a British standard for sunglasses, look out for British Standard BS EN ISO 12312-1.

You should choose sunglasses that:

  • reduce glare
  • filter out 99-100% of UV rays
  • protect your eyes
  • are comfortable to wear
  • do not distort colours

For UV protection in everyday eyewear, there are several options like UV-blocking lens materials, coatings and photochromic lenses.

In addition to sunglasses, wearing a wide-brimmed hat on sunny days can reduce your eyes’ exposure to UV and HEV rays by up to 50 percent.

Many misconceptions exist about the right sun protection for your eyes. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Not all sunglasses block 100 percent of UV rays. If you’re unsure about the level of UV protection your sunglasses provide, take them to your eye doctor or optician for an evaluation, instruments such as spectrophotometers can measure the amount of visible light and UV radiation your lenses block
  • Remember to wear sunglasses even when you’re in the shade. Although shade reduces your UV and HEV exposure to some degree, your eyes still will be exposed to reflected UV rays
  • UV-blocking contacts shield only the part of your eye under the lens. UV rays can still damage your conjunctiva and other tissues not covered by the lens. Wearing sunglasses protects these delicate tissues and the skin around your eyes
  • If you have dark skin and eyes, you still need to wear sunglasses. Your risk of eye damage from UV and HEV rays is the same as that of someone with fair skin

You can safely enjoy the outdoors if you are equipped with the right eye and skin protection to reduce your UV exposure. If you do have any concerns, please contact your optician who will be happy to advise you.

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