We love to feel the warmth of the sun especially after a cold spell or in the summer. However, this heat we cherish comes with harmful radiation. The sun releases heat, sunlight, and dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays even on cloudy days. These rays are invisible to your eye, can cause sunburn, damage your eye, and harm your vision. Most people tend to focus on the skin by applying sunblock but forget the eyes. It’s equally important to focus on the safety of your eyes by protecting your eyes from the sun. You should develop the habit of wearing eye protection from a young age.
UV radiation comes in two types; UV-A and UV-B. UV-A affects your central vision and can damage the macula, a part of the retina at the back of your eye. UV-B is mainly absorbed through the cornea and lens, which occupy the front part of your eye. Research shows that UV-B rays cause more damage to your vision than UV-A rays because it’s the lens that lets in light and works with the cornea to focus the light on the retina. Besides the sun, other sources of UV radiation include tanning beds, welding, and lasers. Both the sun and these sources produce invisible wavelengths that can alter your DNA, leading to premature aging of the skin and skin cancers around your eye.
Everyone exposed to the sun or indoor radiation sources, including children, carries the risk of eye damage due to UV radiation. However, the risk is greater for those who spend long periods in the sun. Other risk factors include those:
- With certain retinal disorders
- With artificial lens implants from cataract surgery since they absorb UV light
- Who are taking certain drugs like sulfa, tetracycline, diuretics, tranquilizers, and birth control pills. These medications cause the eye to be more sensitive to light.
The natural transparent lens of your eye can get cloudy over years of constant exposure to UV rays. You will experience blurry eyes, light sensitivity, seeing double images, poor night vision, or bright colors appearing faded or yellow.
Exposure to UV rays for only a short time can cause photokeratitis, a sunburn of your eyes. Being exposed to snowy and icy places can give rise to a type of photokeratitis called ‘snow blindness.” UV rays are not only emitted during sunny periods but in other weather conditions as the rays bounce off water, snow, ice, and sand. Photokeratitis may be accompanied by pain, blurriness, tearing, a feeling of something in the eye, seeing halos and sensitivity to bright light. Although these symptoms may intensify when exposed to UV rays for longer periods, they resolve on their own and do not cause permanent damage to the eyes.
Exposure to UV radiation for long periods can result in macular degeneration. The disease causes the disintegration of the macula, leading to central vision loss. Macular degeneration can be wet or dry, with the dry one being more common. Symptoms include straight lines that appear bent or wavy, trouble reading words on a page that has a similar color and experiencing difficulty seeing during the first few moments you enter a dark place.
Skin cancers can develop around the upper and lower eyelids because the skin around these areas is thin, making it easier for UV light to cause damage. Both melanoma (when melanocytes or cells begin to grow out of control) and nonmelanoma (the other types of skin cancer that are not melanoma) can develop in these areas.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of nonmelanoma cancer that can grow around the eyes. Symptoms include a waxy or pearly bump, a bleeding, scabby sore that heals and recurs, and a flat, scar-like, skin-colored, or brown growth. BCC grows in areas exposed to the sun such as the face and neck.
Non-melanoma squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) manifests as a red and hard lump, and as a crusty, scaly, flat growth on areas exposed to the sun. However, dark-skinned people may develop SCC in areas not exposed to the sun.
UV rays can cause a pterygium, a growth on the conjunctiva (clear, thin membrane) that begins as a pinguecula. A pinguecula is a yellowish growth (can be small or too large as to impede vision). The symptoms of a pterygium include a yellow bump on the conjunctiva, red-colored or swollen conjunctiva as the growth enlarges, dry, itchy, and burning eyes, eyes that feel gritty, and blurriness.
You have probably worn sunglasses to make a fashion statement. Now it's time for a purposeful selection of eyewear that will fully protect you against harmful radiation from the sun. Most protection comes from eyewear that absorbs UV rays. Prescription and nonprescription eyeglasses, lens implants, and contact lenses can also protect against UV rays. UV-blocking lens materials, coatings, and photochromic lenses are used in eyewear to give you adequate protection. UV-blocking sunglasses can also protect you from potentially dangerous tumors.
You can wear protective sunglasses all year round as damage can occur at any time. However, not all sunglasses are protective. You must select the right pair because the wrong ones can do more harm than not wearing sunglasses at all. You might think that very dark sunglasses are protective, but they are more harmful because they cause the pupils to open wider, allowing in more harmful light.
When shopping for sunglasses, check for the UV rating and ensure the sunglasses provide 99% -100% UV or UV400 protection. Additionally, check that these sunglasses block both UV-A and UV-B radiation. Polarized lenses do not block the sun’s rays, so if you must get them, ensure they contain a special UV-blocking material. Check that the sunglasses stop 75-90% of visible light, the lenses have the same level of darkness, the lenses don’t provide you with an unnatural view, the lenses are grey to enable you to see colors well and the sunglasses have a frame that fits the shape of your face correctly. Above all, ensure your sunglasses have the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation.
Other considerations when purchasing protective sunglasses include lenses that can resist impact if you are involved in outdoor sports or work. The lenses should be made from polycarbonate or safe material to resist impact. Further, get sunglasses that wrap around your face in case wind or UV rays penetrate from the side. When getting sunglasses for children, ensure they are also the right ones.
You can also wear wide-brimmed hats and baseball caps to protect against the sun, but remember these only protect against about half of the sun’s rays. The hats help to limit UV rays from above or around the sunglasses. Additionally, get a tightly woven hat with at least a three-inch brim. This ensures the hat has no holes and can protect your face and the top of your head. But, don’t forget to wear your protective sunglasses!
Although you require a little sunlight for the essential vitamin D, too much exposure can be harmful. Natural light is good for sleep, especially as you age, and children also benefit because it helps prevent nearsightedness. Therefore, be guarded about when to expose yourself or your children to the sun. Remember that the sun is strongest between 8 am-10 am and 2 pm-4 pm. If possible avoid being out during that time. Let the children play but don’t forget their hats and sunglasses!
Other considerations include using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or more to protect your eyes when you remove your shades. Get one that is safe for your eyes and face. Additionally, avoid looking at the sun directly at any time.