Everyone knows the sun's rays are harmful. Applying sunscreen with a high SPF every time you're outdoors is a great start, but it's not enough. Your skin isn't the only area of your body that needs protection from the sun. Your eyes need protection just as much.
How the sun harms the eyes over time
Spending time outdoors exposes you to ultraviolet (UV) rays and blue light rays (the short wavelengths of the light spectrum.) You can't see these invisible rays, but they can injure your eyes.
Long-term, repeated exposure to UV rays without protection can raise your risk for eye problems that can lead to vision loss:
- Age-related macular degeneration. Both of these can cause vision loss.
- Benign (non-cancerous) growths called pterygia on the eye's surface.
- Skin cancer around the eyelids.
Some research points to blue light also causing damage to the eyes.
Sunburn: not for skin only
You can also damage your eyes from spending just one day in the sun. Eyes are exposed to more UV rays when the rays are reflected off some surfaces, such as sand, snow, water or pavement. When the eyes are exposed to large amount of UV light in a short period of time, they can get sunburned:
- Photokeratitis is sunburn or inflammation of the cornea (the eye's surface)
- Photoconjunctivitis is sunburn or swelling of the conjunctiva (the tissue that covers the white part of the eye)
Sunburn of the eyes can be very painful. Discomfort often starts a few hours after exposure. Luckily, the condition is temporary and often goes away within a day or two without treatment.
In rare cases, an extreme type of photokeratitis called "snow blindness" can occur. Snow blindness usually only happens to skiers and climbers at a high altitudes. It's a very painful condition that causes temporary blindness.
Tips to protect your eyes
Take these six steps to shield your eyes from the sun's destructive rays:
- Wear sunglasses whenever you're outside (even if you have contact lenses with UV protection). Do this especially in the early afternoon and at high altitudes, where UV light is most intense. Don't be fooled by cloudy days. The sun's rays can pass through clouds and haze, so it's still important to protect your eyes.
- Invest in good sunglasses for your whole family, including your children. Choose ones that:
- Block 99 percent to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays.
- Reduce glare.
- Have lenses that are large enough to shield the eye from the sun at most angles. Special sunglasses are available for people with macular degeneration. These have side panels and a ridge at the top that filter out all light.
- Are comfortable.
- Don't distort colors. If you choose colored lenses, the most helpful colors for blocking out blue light are red, orange, yellow and amber.
- Carry a spare pair of sunglasses with you because they are easy to forget, misplace or break.
- Buy sunglasses from a reputable dealer because some sunglasses are mislabeled. Your optician can check your glasses to measure the UV protection.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat or cap to block about half of UV rays. This will also limit UV rays that reach eyes from above or around glasses.
- Wear goggles when swimming. They'll protect your eyes from the sun and from chlorine, which can make eyes red and puffy. If you swim in a lake or pond, bacteria can get under contact lenses and cause inflammation of the cornea.
Created on 07/10/2006
Updated on 01/27/2010
- World Health Organization. What are the effects of UV on the eye?
- Lewin MR, Jensen SC, Platts-Mills TF. Wilderness preparation, equipment and medical supplies. In: Auerbach PS. Wilderness Medicine, 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2007.
- NSF Polar Programs UV Monitoring Network. Effects of UV radiation on you.
- Macular Degeneration Partnership. Good habits to embrace.
- Prevent Blindness America. Protect your eyes from the sun!