Protect Your Eyes From Sunburn

06/20/2013

Hey parents, have you ever found that you or your children are squinting while outside in the bright sun?

If so, you’ve experienced a direct message from your eyes that they need protection from the outside light. While no suntan lotion can protect them, the proper sunglasses as well as a broad brimmed hat can do just the trick!

Your Eyes get Sunburned, Too

iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Make the smart decision and protect your eyes

Intense and short-term exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVA or UVB light rays) has the potential to cause photo keratitis, a painful burn on the surface of our eyes that can cause temporary blindness (think bright sun reflecting off snow or a sandy beach).

Even if you escape that type of damage, persistent and long-term irritation from UVA or UVB radiation has the potential to lead to vision robbing conditions such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, as well as skin cancer around the eyes and on the lids. 

The Lowdown on UV

  • Sunlight contains ultraviolet radiation (UVR), specifically types A and B radiation (UVA and UVB)
  • UV light is most intense late morning to mid-afternoon, from 10 am to 4 pm
  • Window glass (unless it contains a special coating) does not absorb UV radiation. This makes it especially important to wear sunglasses while driving or as a passenger in cars, buses, etc.
  • UV intensity is highest in summer months, at higher altitudes, and closest to the equator
  • Eye damage from UV light can occur on cloudy days
  • Children under the age of ten are at a higher risk for UVA and UVB effects because the lens of the eye is very clear, allowing even more light to penetrate

Shopping for Sunglasses

When shopping for sunglasses, remember that lens color (dark or mirrored) doesn't necessarily mean better protection from UV rays. In fact, poor quality dark lenses have the potential to distort colors, even the red and green on traffic lights. And, the darker the lenses, the greater the chance your pupils (dark part of the eye) will dilate and let in more damaging UV light. Therefore, it may be best to consider amber, neutral gray, brown or green colored lenses.

When it comes to polarized lenses, they do have the potential to minimize glare, but by themselves, don't block UV rays. No matter what the color lens or whether or not they are polarized, the most important factor is to make sure your sunglasses block 99-100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B rays, or simply state, "provides 100% UV protection" or "UV400 protection."

Here are some tips to remember:

  • Expensive doesn't mean better. Choose sunglasses with lenses that are impact-resistant and made of polycarbonate. This is especially important for children so their glasses are "playground safe" and less likely to shatter, scratch or have the eyeglass lens fall out
  • Let kids pick out their sunglasses - if they like them there is a greater chance they will wear them. And if you can, go for the "daily double" by adding a broad brimmed hat of their choice to add protection to their eyes and skin from overhead light
  • Ensure the sunglasses fit properly and shield the eyes from all angles (this helps to decrease eye exposure to reflected light and glare)
  • Look for large or wrap-around lenses
  • Even though many contact lenses have some degree of UV protection, it is still important to wear sunglasses
  • If you wear prescription lenses, please speak with your ophthalmologist, optometrist, optician or eye care specialist regarding special UV coatings or prescription sunglasses

 Other Factors for Eye Protection

While wearing sunglasses on sunny days makes a lot of sense, eye protection on cloudy days is important too. The reflections that occur against sand, parking lots, snow, and water can produce the same sun damage to your eyes.

In addition to reflected light, there are medical reasons and/or medications that can cause your eyes to be more sensitive to the effects of UV light. These include but aren’t limited to the following:

  • Those who have already had cataract surgery or who have other retinal disorders.
  • Certain medications (some quinolone type antibiotics, tetracycline, sulfa drugs, birth control pills, diuretics, tranquilizers and others)
  • Children's eyes are even more sensitive to potential damage from UV rays. Given the time kids spend outside, unprotected UV exposure can build up over time and lead to increased vision problems during the adult years.

Best Bets

While outside, the best way to protect your eyes is to wear a broad-rimmed hat and wrap-around sunglasses (added protection from reflected light getting in through the sides). Not only that, but wrap-around sunglasses with overhead shields can also provide greater protection against skin cancer around the eyes or on the eyelids.

Wrinkle-less Bonus

Need one more reason to wear sunglasses? Wearing them cuts down on squinting in bright light as well as offers some protection against the premature aging of the skin (photoaging) around the eyes. This in turn may cut back on wrinkles. 

See what sunglasses compliment your face shape the best here.


Dr. Rob believes in preventative and integrative approaches to medicine. He specializes in family medicine as well as children's health and wellness.
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