Many of us know our skin needs protection from UV damage. However, our eyes are up to ten times more sensitive to UV damage than our skin and yet they are often neglected when it comes to protecting them, in fact 50% of people don’t protect themselves by wearing sunglasses.
Accumulated ultraviolet (UV) damage can cause eye diseases such as pterygium — a pinkish eye growth that is mostly harmless, but can affect vision — eyelid tumours and cataracts.
A cataract is a cloudy eye growth more commonly seen in the elderly, but may also develop earlier in life or progress more rapidly in people who spend a lot of time outdoors without adequate UV protection.
If untreated, cataracts may lead to blindness. Pterygium, which presents as a benign wing-shaped lesion, usually occurs on the inner corner of the eye. But doctors are also seeing a number of double-headed pterygium cases, where the lesions appear on both the inner and outer corners of the eye, due to accumulated damage from high UV exposure.
A common early sign of UV damage to the eye is chronic or worsening eye dryness. Other symptoms include eye pain and watery eyes after a day out in the sun.
The danger is that early signs of UV-related eye damage are often unnoticeable and can only be detected during a comprehensive eye examination by an eye healthcare professional.
The easiest way to protect the eyes from UV damage is to choose the right eyewear and sunglasses, and remember that not all sunglasses are made equal.
Do children need sunglasses?
Up to 80% of the eye’s lifetime exposure to UV light is reached before the age of 18, which makes UV protection particularly important in childhood. Because children’s eyes have larger pupils and clearer lenses, they are more susceptible to sun damage. Plus, despite children generally spending more time outdoors than adults, 70% of them still don’t wear sunglasses in the UK.
Do Lenses with a darker tint give more protection?
Lenses with darker tints do not necessarily offer more protection. Lenses can appear colourless and yet provide 100 per cent UV protection. However, dark lenses which do not offer a sufficient level of UV protection can actually be more damaging because they cause the eye’s pupils to dilate (get bigger) and let in more harmful light.
Is Sun damage to the eyes is temporary?
Some sun damage is temporary, like some cases of snow blindness. But most damage develops over time, due to the cumulative effect of UV exposure, and eventually becomes irreversible. Clear parts of the eye, like the lenses, absorb UV light and gradually yellow, leading to cataracts. Sun damage also contributes to age-related macular degeneration.
Do I only need sunglasses when the sun is out?
Your eyes need protection from the sun all year round, even on cloudy days. Cloud cover only reduces the amount of UV light by 10%. In the evenings and mornings we also get more light from reflective surfaces like roads. Because UV is found in the invisible part of the light spectrum, we can’t see it or feel it. Plus, depletion to the ozone layer means it acts as less of a barrier, making UV protection even more important.
Can certain medical problems increase my risk for damage from UV rays?
Yes. People with cataracts (and those who have had cataract surgery), macular degeneration or retinal dystrophies should be extra careful.
Do all sunglasses offer the same UV protection?
The level of UV protection provided by sunglasses can vary. When choosing eyewear and sunglasses, consider the following:
• Ensure adequate UV protection to block harmful rays
Look for a label that says “UV400” when buying sunglasses or spectacles. This means they block light rays with wavelengths up to 400 nanometres, which protects against 100% of both UVA and UVB rays.
• The shape and size matter
Your sunglasses should be well-fitted, cover your eyes and sit close to the face. For example, wraparound frames would provide better protection against harmful UV rays than round framed sunglasses that sit further away from the face. Due to differences in facial structures, the frame should also be adjusted for a comfortable fit to provide adequate coverage.
• Replace scratched sunglasses
Scratches on UV-coated lens can affect how well harmful UV rays are filtered.