Why Your Eyes Need Year-Round UV Protection

Published 05/01/2023
by Heritage Vision Plans

Sunglasses aren’t just for the summer. Here’s how to keep your eyes safe from the sun, no matter the season.

May is Ultraviolet Awareness month—a perfect topic as the days turn warmer and many of us begin to make outdoor plans for the summer. Whether those plans involve a trip to the beach, a picnic in the park, or a summer sports league, it is important we all take steps to protect ourselves against harmful radiation.

Most of us understand that UV rays cause sunburns, and that prolonged exposure also increases the risk of skin cancer. After all, that’s why we take care to slather on sunscreen whenever we’re planning to be outdoors. But fewer people realize that our eyes need even more protection than our skin. In fact, research from the Australian Skin Cancer Foundation indicates that our eyes may be ten times more sensitive to UV rays than our skin.

Summer months are when those rays are strongest—so strong, in fact, that we hardly need reminders to put on sunscreen and wear sunglasses. But UV radiation can cause damage to our eyes all year long, which is why we should all take extra care to educate ourselves about eye protection, and keep up with annual eye exams so that any issues can be addressed with early detection. Here’s what you need to know.

UV rays are linked to a range of harmful eye conditions.

The sunlight which reaches the Earth’s surface spans many wavelengths, from ultraviolet (UV) light, to the visible light spectrum, to infrared light. While much of the most dangerous radiation is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, enough UV radiation makes it through to cause problems.

Conditions which may develop due to too much UV exposure include:

  • Corneal damage, such as cataracts, macular degeneration, and other eye problems.
  • Cancers, including eyelid cancers and ocular melanoma.
  • Pinguecula, which is a yellow bump on the white of the eye.
  • Pterygium, or “surfer’s eye,” a benign growth that appears in the inner corner of the eye and can grow to cover the cornea.
  • Photokeratitis, which is like a sunburn on your eye. Symptoms include red eyes, blurred vision, the feeling of grittiness behind the eyelids, excessive tearing, and extreme light sensitivity. It often heals on its own, but may require a consultation with your optometrist.

Some of these conditions are treatable, and others may heal on their own. However, they may also cause permanent damage to the eye, and should therefore be prevented as much as possible.

UV rays can damage your eyes, even on cloudy days.

You may assume that cloudy days are safe, but UV radiation penetrates through cloud cover, sometimes causing even more damage than on sunny days because fewer people take precautions. Moreover, sunlight reflecting off water, snow, or ice can be just as damaging as direct light. In the winter, the lower angle of the sun can cause more light to enter our eyes during the slow dawns and lingering sunsets.

Avoiding the sun at the brightest parts of the day can also be advisable, especially on days with a high UV index, which is displayed in many smartphone weather apps. When the UV index is low (1 or 2), no protection is needed. For a moderate UV index (3–5), some eye protection is important, while eye protection is essential for any UV index above 6.

UV protection is essential for outdoor sports, especially in winter.

Wearing sunglasses while playing sports doesn’t just protect you from UV rays. It can also guard your eyes from debris—such as dust or sand—which can get kicked up while playing a round of volleyball on the beach or an inning of baseball in the park. Winter sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, often require protective goggles due to the glare from snow. Check to be sure that any goggles you wear, whether for skiing or swimming, are also UV blocking.

While we’re talking about sports, altitude is also a factor to consider. UV rays grow stronger the higher up in the atmosphere you go, so if you live in high altitudes, or plan to travel somewhere in a high altitude, take extra precautions.

Tips for purchasing sunglasses.

Sunglasses do more than protect your eyes from sun damage. They can also shield your eyes from debris, prevent sun-related headaches, and reduce wrinkles around your eyes. However, the wrong pair of sunglasses can do more damage than good.

Dark lenses cause pupils to dilate in order to let in more light, but if the sunglasses don’t protect against UV radiation, then they are actually allowing rays to penetrate deeper than they ordinarily would. This is also true for glasses with small lenses that block direct sunlight but let in light around the sides.

When shopping for sunglasses:

  • Look for labels with UV400 protection, meaning they effectively block out 100% of UV radiation.
  • Polarized lenses reduce glare, but don’t necessarily block UV rays.
  • Choose sunglasses that provide broad coverage from both the sides and the front.
  • If you wear prescription glasses, consider getting a prescription pair of sunglasses as well.

Sunglasses also aren’t the only way to protect your eyes. You should also remember to wear sunscreen, and consider wearing a hat with a 3-inch or larger brim to cover your face more fully.

Talk about UV radiation and light sensitivity with your optometrist.

Some eye conditions, such as astigmatism, can cause light sensitivity to grow worse, and your eye doctor may recommend prescription sunglasses. Regardless, keeping your annual eye exam is an essential part of maintaining healthy vision. Annual eye exams are part of your vision benefits package, so schedule an appointment with your provider today!