Ray of light
Local experts stress the importance of protecting eyes from the sun.
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Most of us know excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays can have damaging, long-term effects on our skin, but what about our eyes? The National Eye Institute has deemed May “Healthy Vision Month.” And what better time to make sure you’re doing everything you can to protect those pools that harbor your view of the world outside?
When it comes to shielding our eyes from the sun and its ultraviolet rays, Monte Harrel, O.D., of Harrel Eyecare says it’s just as important as wearing sunscreen. “Just like we protect our skin, our eyes need to be protected,” he says.
Age and risk factors
The longer our eyes are exposed to UV radiation, the greater our risk of developing cataracts, skin cancer around the eyelids, macular degeneration — a disorder that damages the retina and destroys central vision — photokeratitis (a sunburn to the eye’s surface) and pterygium, a growth that occurs on the white part of the eye, says Kali Cole, M.D., of Blink Optical.
Children’s eyes in particular might have an increased risk of UV damage due to incomplete eye development and the amount of time children spend outdoors. The average child receives about three times the annual UV exposure as the average adult and reaches up to 80 percent of lifetime UV exposure before age 20, according to the American Optometric Association. In seniors, factors such as dry eye and cataracts become more likely with excessive sun exposure, Harrel says.
In addition, adults who spend a great deal of time outdoors, use a sunlamp or tanning parlor, have had cataract surgery in one or both eyes or take over-the-counter drugs that increase sensitivity to light also are at a greater risk of UV harm, according to the AOA.
With the potential dangers at hand, how can we be sure we are preventing disease and protecting our eyes from the sun? It’s an obvious answer: protective eyewear. “There are several ways to protect our eyes from UV damage,” Harrel says. “Prescription and nonprescription eyewear, clip-ons, fit overs — there are brands of contacts that include more UV protection than others for patients who wear contact lenses.”
Liz Batchelor, O.D., of Triad Eye Institute suggests adding another layer of protection by wearing a hat and applying sunscreen around the eyes. “It is important to protect your eyes and the skin around your eyes from UV rays anytime you are outside, whether it’s sunny or cloudy,” she says.
Quality and protection
Although many of us own a pair of sunglasses to match our every mood, the accessory should be more than stylish. So what should you look for when shopping for shades?
Cole says the most important thing to prioritize is the level of UV protection offered by the lens. The safest bet is to purchase sunglasses that provide 100-percent UVA and UVB protection. Typically, high-end brands such as Oakley and Ray-Ban offer such protection, but most inexpensive brands do, too. She warns, “Don’t be fooled by price.”
That said, it’s important not to confuse lens quality with UV protection. When it comes down to it, Harrel says sunglasses’ quality typically is demonstrated in lens clarity. Generally, a higher price tag equals polarized and anti-glare lenses that offer a better, clearer image, which allows for a comfortable viewing experience when driving and playing sports. At the same time, just because a lens is polarized does not mean it offers 100-percent UV protection, Cole says.
It’s important to consider a proper fit, too, Batchelor adds. “Pick a frame that fits close to your eyes and contours the shape of your face to protect your eyes from all sides,” she says.
New technologies are shifting focus to filter blue light, which is emitted by the sun and artificial light sources such as LEDs, computers and smart phones, Cole says. Some blue light is good for the eyes, but too much blue-violet light has been shown to cause macular degeneration.
Crizal Prevencia no-glare lenses are designed to selectively block harmful types of blue light. A newly developed Light Scan process allows beneficial blue light to pass through the lens and filters out the dangerous blue-violet light.
Prevention vs. treatment
At the end of the day, it is easier to prevent harm from UV rays than it is to treat potential consequences. In addition, medical professionals remain uncertain about the amount of solar radiation exposure required to cause eye damage. Cole stresses, “Whenever you spend time outdoors, whatever the age, wear quality sunglasses that offer UV protection and a hat or cap with a wide brim.”