It’s the time of the year for picnics, outdoors sports, lunch hour strolls – and diligent sunscreen use! Using a high SPF sunscreen protects your skin from the well-known effects of the sun… wrinkles and the much more dangerous, skin cancer. But what you also need to know is that the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light can seriously damage your eyes too.
Ultraviolet light has been associated with eye disease such as cataracts. It also has been associated with conditions called pinguecula and pterygium, which are growths on the eye. Both conditions are generally found near the corners of the eye and can eventually affect vision, and you also can get skin cancers on the eye and eyelid.
In addition, certain medical conditions may make you more sensitive to the light, particularly if you are one of the approximately one million Americans who have cataracts removed each year. During cataract surgery, patients have the natural lens of their eye removed and replaced with a synthetic lens, which usually makes bright light more difficult to tolerate. In addition, people taking photosensitizing drugs such as psoralen (for psoriasis), tetracycline, doxycycline or allopurinol can be more sensitive to light.
Sun damage from UV exposure doesn’t happen while walking to the house from the car, but does come from prolonged, cumulative exposure to the sun. If you are outdoors two to three hours daily, particularly when the sun is the highest, or if you live at higher elevations where the sun’s rays are more direct — it’s smart to protect yourself.
How do you protect yourself? A wide brimmed hat will help protect your eyes from above. But for thorough protection, sunglasses are key. They not only protect the eye, but the eyelids as well.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that sunglasses screen out 99 to 100 percent of UV light (both the tanning long-wave UV-A and the blistering, cancer-causing short-wave UV-B). The label on the sunglasses should specify it blocks both UV-A and UV-B rays. Some manufacturer’s labels specify “UV absorption up to 400nm”, which means 100 percent UV absorption.
Does it matter what kind of sunglasses you buy?
Most sunglasses provide about the same amount of UV protection. The difference between the more expensive and the cheaper sunglasses is the optical quality. Check this out by holding up a pair of sunglasses to something with straight lines, such as floor tile: if the lines are distorted and wavy, the optical quality is not good. Since all sunglasses must meet Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) impact resistance standards, you usually don’t need to worry about broken lenses. “Glass is rarely used in sunglasses, most are made of plastic now”.
It’s also important to consider where the UV rays hit your eyes. About half of UV rays enter your eyes from above and on the sides of regular sunglasses, Dr. Brick points out. That’s why he recommends wrap-around glasses – for more protection.
There are also other options in sunglasses. One is a polarized lens: when light reflects from water, snow or pavement, it becomes “polarized.” The polarized light vibrates mainly in one direction — and your eyes need to filter it. Polarizing sunglasses reduce this reflection – and reduce the need to constantly adjust to the glare. A polarized lens will not by itself protect from UV rays, but many of them now add this protective factor.
Lenses that automatically darken in bright light, called “photochromic” lenses, usually have good UV protection. They do take time to adjust to the different light conditions. Some manufacturers of sunglasses promote the fact they filter “blue” light. Medical studies haven’t yet shown whether this is beneficial to the eye. Contact lenses by themselves will not protect your eyes, but some have UV protection added to them.
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