By Steve Blanchard - July 17, 2020
Sunblock, check. Wide-brimmed hats, check. Long-sleeve shirts, check.
These are all essential to protecting our skin from the harmful rays of the sun. But what many may not realize is that it’s just as important to bring along our sunglasses, and it’s about much more than comfort.
According to Moffitt Cancer Center board certified dermatologist Dr. Lucia Seminario-Vidal, our eyes are nearly as susceptible to UV-induced damage as our skin. Protecting them with sunglasses, especially sunglasses that specifically block ultraviolet rays, can help us avoid long term damage.
UV radiation can directly damage DNA and it can cause a number of health concerns in our eyes, particularly to our conjunctiva, cornea and lens. Some effects of too much UV radiation are cataracts and pterygium, a pinkish, triangular tissue growth on the cornea of the eye that can grow so large that it impairs vision.
"Choose sunglasses that cover your eyes, eyelids and surrounding skin. Oversized or wraparound styles provide increased protection for the sides of the eyes and our eyelids."- Dr. Lucia Seminario-Vidal, board certified dermatologist
“And don’t forget photokeratitis,” Seminario-Vidal said. “It’s also called snow-blindness or sunburned eyes, which is an acute side effect of UV radiation.”
Sunburned eyes can cause blurry vision, swelling and watery eyes. Typically the effects are chronic, meaning they take several years to develop. So one day of forgetting your sunglasses likely won’t cause permanent damage.
But sunglass use, specifically ones designed to reflect UV radiation, is an important part of our arsenal to avoid sun damage. Many brands of sunglasses have labels of UV400, which is to sunglasses what SPF ratings are to sunblock. UV400 indicates the lenses block all light rays with wavelengths up to 400 nanometers, which covers all UVA and UVB rays.
Finding the right lenses to block the UV rays is the first step, but it’s also important to check the fit of your sunglasses.
“UV radiation is everywhere and may enter the eyes from all angles,” Seminario-Vidal said. “Choose sunglasses that cover your eyes, eyelids and surrounding skin. Oversized or wraparound styles provide increased protection for the sides of the eyes and our eyelids.”
If you are active in sports, it’s also important to use sturdy sunglasses that are plastic and labeled impact-resistant, which means they are less likely to shatter if they are hit. Seminario-Vidal also suggests looking for lenses with scratch-resistant coatings as well.
But what about the ever popular polarized lenses? Well, they do have their benefits, but they have nothing to do with UV protection.
“Polarized simply means the lenses minimize reflected glare,” Seminario-Vidal said.
Sunglasses are the best way for everyone to protect their eyes from damaging rays from the sun. However, some people are more susceptible to ocular UV damage than others. Those with blue or green eyes, fair skin, contact-wearers and those on certain medications like retinoids and tetracycline antibiotics could see an elevated risk of damage.
Just as when trying to protect your skin from the sun, you can do the same to protect your eyes, Seminario-Vidal says. And remember to protect the eyes of children. They are particularly vulnerable to UV radiation damage since they have larger pupils, clearer lenses and typically spend more time outdoors.
She suggests anyone enjoying the outdoors stay in the shade when possible and limit the time in the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tanning beds are never recommended since they use the same harmful UV light as the sun, and wearing a hat with a three-inch brim or larger to protect your face, the top of your head and your eyes and eyelids.
“It’s also important to know that sunlight is stronger at higher altitudes and when it is reflected off water, ice or snow,” Seminario-Vidal said. “Wear your sunglasses whenever you are out, even on cloudy days because sun damage to the eyes and eyelids can happen any time of the year.”