Welcome, spring and summer sun! Welcome, warm weather sports, gardening, boating and pools. And welcome, oxidative stress to the retinal pigment epithelium and cyclobutane-pyrimidine dimers in our DNA. Wait. What were those last two things? Before you really get going outside this season, we would like to talk to you about why sun protection for your eyes is so important.
In addition to being the windows to the soul, our eyes are very important to us. We use them to drive, to text (but not at the same time of course), to recognize faces, to read books and to binge on Netflix. Our eyes grow and age along with the rest of our bodies and throughout the years, our eyes have been exposed to the sun. The sun can affect many different parts of the eye, from the outside to the inside.
Show me a person who has never gotten a sunburn and I will show you a flying pig! Thankfully, sun protection and pale skin are now coming back into style. Many face lotions now include their SPF rating. But how many of us put sunblock on our eyelids? Eyelids are made of skin and do get skin cancer.
When it comes to sunglasses, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends sunglasses that protect 99-100% of UVA/UVB light. Quality prescription glasses (even regular clear lenses) protect against UVA/UVB (ultraviolet) light, but may not provide as much coverage as sunglasses. It is important to note that it is not the darkness of the lens that matters, but the lens material or the coating on the lens.
The white part of the eye (conjunctiva and sclera) is also affected by UV damage. If you have ever seen someone that looks as if the white part of their eye is creeping over the colored part of their eye, the most common cause of this is sun damage. There are also less noticeable changes, like small raised areas on the white part of the eye. Both of these conditions, called pterygium and pinguecula respectively, can cause the eyes to be red or uncomfortable from time to time. They can also be troublesome cosmetically. And less commonly, they can become cancer on the eyeball.
Although it is tempting to think that the inside of the eye is not affected by the sun, that is not the case. Light must enter the eye for us to see. As light enters our eye, it passes through the lens of our eye, which helps to focus the light. This lens of the eye slowly grows into a cataract as we age. If we are blessed to live a long life, we will all get cataracts. There are many reasons for cataracts to grow faster or need surgery at a younger age, and excess sun exposure is one of them. So, to keep your eyes younger longer, throw on those shades.
And lastly, the retina is damaged by the sun. The retina is the nerve layer that lines the back of the eye like wallpaper, senses light and sends signals to the brain. The brain then tells us what we are seeing. With the recent solar eclipse, sun damage to the eye got a lot of press. Everyone was warned to not look directly at the sun, and that was fantastic advice. But it broke my heart to see everyone out the very next day without any sunglasses on. Of course staring directly at the sun is a bad for your eyes, but the everyday exposure to the sun’s rays adds up over time, as well. So pick out some stylish shades and keep those retinas safe.
My final plea is for those overcast days! Remember, it is not the darkness of the lens that matters in sunglasses. Have a pair of lightly tinted or untinted lens for cloudy days. When I grew up, some of my friends would forego sunblock on a cloudy day. I used to hold my hand up in front of their face and say, “Can you see my hand? That is because there is still light from the sun reaching the earth!” So, while sunny days and the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. have the most intense UV exposure, make a habit of protecting those peepers in all weather.
If you have any questions about protecting your eyes, sunglasses or lens materials, come to our optical shops and talk to our fantastic opticians!
Article author Catherine Baston, MD, is a physician with Prisma Health Eye Institute–Greenville.
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