One of my favorite parts of this time of year is how long the days start to get. While I spent the winter leaving for work and coming home in the dark, the days are finally long enough that I can enjoy the sun’s glory for almost my entire day. Last week I spent some time talking about how to keep your skin safe when the sun’s rays start to strengthen during this time of the year. Today, I want to talk about how that protection applies to your eyes. Most people know to put on sunscreen when they head out in the sun, but few recognize how much protection their eyes need.
The sun’s rays can damage your eyes.
As I mentioned last week, the sun gives off many types of radiation. Some, like light or infrared radiation, are completely harmless. But others, like the different kinds of ultraviolet radiation, can damage the tissues of your body. The same UVA and UVB rays that cause sunburns and skin cancer can also cause both short- and long-term eye damage.
In the short term, eyes exposed to intense UV radiation can get something similar to sunburn called photokeratitis where UV radiation burns the outer layer of the eye called the cornea. You might have heard of photokeratitis as “snow blindness” because you generally have to be up at high altitudes for this to happen. It has been known to happen at the beach, but it’s much less common. Fortunately, photokeratitis gets better within a few weeks, but it’s extremely uncomfortable while it lasts.
More importantly, UVA and UVB rays can penetrate the eye and damage both the lens of the eye and the delicate retina that senses light. Over time, repeated exposure to UV radiation can cause the lens to cloud over. This clouding of the lens is called cataracts and prevents light from entering the eye, which eventually leads to blindness. The retina in the back of the eye can also be damaged. Long-term sun exposure has been associated with macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of blindness among older adults.
Get yourself a pair of sunglasses.
That might all sound pretty nasty, but there’s a simple solution. Sunglasses act as a filter to let in light rays while excluding harmful UV rays. A good pair of sunglasses will block out the harmful radiation and save your eyes from damage.
Here’s what you need to look for when you’re picking out a pair:
- UV protection. Regardless of which sunglasses you choose, they should block out 99 to 100% of UV light. If you don’t see any comments about UV protection on the pair you buy, don’t assume they have it. Most cheap sunglasses are just tinted and don’t actually block UV. If you’re not protected from these harmful rays, there’s no point in wearing sunglasses. UV protection is a must.
- Sunglasses come in all shapes and sizes, but the best ones wrap around your face and protect your eyes from all angles. If your sunglasses don’t do this, UV rays are still making it to your eyes. You can pick a pair that comes in whatever shape looks the best on you, but make sure they wrap around to cover your whole field of vision. If they don’t do that, you’re not completely protected.
- Glare reduction. Glare doesn’t damage your eyes, but it can make it difficult to see in bright light situations. This can be dangerous if you’re doing something that requires constant visual attention like driving or sports. Polarized glasses and reflective lenses both reduce glare and allow you to see even in the brightest situations.
Make sure you wear them!
There isn’t much point to having a pair of sunglasses if you never wear them. I’d suggest getting a pair that looks good on you and will also work for many different types of settings. Buy a good case and carry them with you so that you have them on hand whenever you’re outside. When you’re out and about, make sure you put them on. Remember, UV rays penetrate the clouds without any trouble, so you should put those sunglasses on even if it’s overcast to minimize your UV exposure.
If you wear glasses, try to get lenses that block UV if they’re available. Glasses don’t have to be tinted to have this feature and this can help to keep you protected if you’re caught without your sunglasses. Glasses that tint automatically in the sun are a great option if you’re in and out regularly, but remember that you’re not totally protected if they don’t wrap around.