Last week, National Public Radio’s WGVU Morning Show host, Shelly Irwin, interviewed nationally renowned optometrist Dr. Gary Anderson about the effects of the sun on our eyes.
Sorry to spoil the punch line, but Dr. Anderson’s bottom line is this: Wear high-quality, polarized sunglasses with at least 99% UVA and UVB protection, year-round, even when it’s cloudy, especially if you’re under 18 years old.
The first layer to receive the harmful effects of sunlight is, logically, the top layer, called the cornea. When too many hours of sunlight cause our eyes feel dry and itchy, this is inflammation of the cornea (keratitis). This irritation can make our eyes ache if we’ve been outside all day without proper or adequate eye protection.
The next surface of the eye damaged by UV light is the lens. The more UV exposure the lens receives, the earlier it will form cataracts. Cataracts are the grey-blue clouding that obstructs the passage of light to the retina. Only surgical removal of this clouding can restore a patient’s vision. Fortunately, today’s modern cataract surgery implants interocular lenses with built-in UV protection.
Even the deepest layer of the eye, the macula, can be injured by UV rays. This is a yellow spot near the center of the retina at the back of the eye. Macular degeneration, the breakdown of this tissue, is one of the leading causes of blindness and visual impairment in adults over the age of 50 and is the direct result of accumulated, overexposure to sunlight over the course of a lifetime.
Who Needs Extra Eye Protection?
Everyone should wear high-quality sunglasses with at least 99% UVA and UVB protection. However, in our first 18 years, 50% of our lifetime exposure to sunlight takes place. Therefore, Dr. Anderson says babies should start wearing quality sunglasses no later than six months old because their eye tissue is even more sensitive to the effects of UV light than adults and children and teens should wear quality sunglasses consistently throughout childhood. (Note: Dr. Anderson also stresses of importance of explaining to children that they should never look directly at the sun, because doing so focuses the UV light directly on the back of the eye like a magnifying glass, which could actually burn a hole through the retina. So be sure to tell your kids: (never, never stare into the sun, even during an eclipse).
People taking certain medications may also experience increased UV eye sensitivity. Some common prescriptions which cause this effect include:
- tetracyclines (a group of broad-spectrum antibiotics)
- sulfa drugs
- birth control pills
What’s the Best Protection?
Again, Dr. Anderson recommends good sunglasses that absorb at least 99% of ultraviolet A and B rays, as well as 75%-90% of visible light. Visible light is not UV, but merely the brightness -the glare- which polarization takes care of.
Dr. Anderson goes on to explain: “You might find a stylish pair of sunglasses at the Marathon station for $3 that keeps out the brightness, but they won’t protect you from the UV rays. Those sunglasses may damage your eyes more than wearing no sunglasses at all, because when you put them on, your pupils get bigger “because they’re receiving less light” but that simply lets in more UV which isn’t being blocked at all. So yes, you’re going to pay more for a good pair of sunglasses. The $3 ones won’t cut it.
Additional sun protection for your eyes include:
- A hat with a brim, like a baseball cap or a wide brim hat, cuts down on direct light coming from above
- Ultraviolet-blocking soft contact lenses
- Clear prescription eyeglasses that have an added UV-protection layer
Dr. Anderson’s Final Thoughts – “Don’t forget…”:
- On the water, sand, and snow, your UV exposure is doubled because of the reflected rays coming into your eyes from both above and below
- The effects of the sun are worse in southern states and the closer you are to the equator
- UV effects are worse at high altitudes where there’s less atmosphere to diffract and absorb it
- Wear quality sunglasses year-round. Sometimes we think when it’s cloudy we don’t have to worry about it, but UV goes right through clouds