How to Protect Your Eyes From UV LightDecember 22, 2018
When most people think about protecting their eyes from ultraviolet (UV) light, they think about shielding their eyes from the sun. But what many people don’t realize is UV radiation exists even when the sun is hidden behind clouds. In fact, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV radiation can penetrate slight cloud cover. So, even on overcast, dreary days, you still need to protect your eyes from UV light.
And, while the sun is the primary source of ultraviolet radiation, artificial sources such as lasers, tanning beds, and welding machines can also emit UV light.
Small amounts of UV radiation are beneficial and play an integral role in your body’s vitamin D production. However, overexposure to UV radiation is harmful. You can harm your vision by exposing your eyes to UV rays and cause numerous eye problems including:
- Macular degeneration
- Corneal sunburn
- Eyelid skin cancer
Individuals working or playing in the sun or who are exposed to the sun for a lengthy amount of time have the most significant risk for eye or vision damage from UV rays. However, everyone, including kids, has a chance of UV radiation-related eye damage.
What Is Ultraviolet Radiation?
Ultraviolet radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation. The primary source of UV radiation is the sun. However, man-made sources like welding torches and sunlamps can also generate them.
The three types of UV rays are:
1. UVC rays: UVC rays are the highest-energy UV rays which could be potentially the most damaging to your skin and eyes. The good news is the ozone layer of our atmosphere blocks out almost all UVC rays. However, this also means any ozone layer depletion can potentially allow UVC rays to reach the surface of the earth and lead to serious UV-related health issues. UVC rays have 100 to 280 nanometer (nm) wavelengths.
2. UVB rays: UVB rays have 280 to 315 nm wavelengths, but UVC rays have lower energy. The ozone layer filters these rays partially, but some still make it to the earth’s surface. UVB radiation, in small doses, stimulates melanin (a skin pigment) production and causes your skin to darken. This creates a suntan. At higher doses, however, UVB rays can lead to sunburn, increasing your risk of skin cancer. These rays can also lead to wrinkles, skin discoloration, and premature skin aging.
3. UVA rays: These are invisible light rays that are closer and have lower energy than UVC and UVB rays. But, UVA rays may pass through your cornea, reaching your retina and lens inside your eye.
A Note About Blue Light
A part of the visible light spectrum is blue light. The sun emits blue light, but so do artificial lighting sources like smartphones, televisions, computers, and LEDs. A study found individuals in the U.S. spend nearly two and a half hours on their smartphones and tablets each day. Also, most stores and offices use fluorescent lighting, and LED lights are growing in popularity.
Some forms of blue light are beneficial because they help regulate the internal biological clocks of our bodies. But, blue-violet light can also be damaging to our eyes, particularly the retina. It’s a risk factor for age-related macular degeneration — the deterioration of the area of the retina in charge of sharp, central vision.
High-energy visible (HEV) radiation, also called blue light, is visible, as the name suggests. While HEV rays have longer 400 to 500 nm wavelengths and lower energy than UV rays, they deeply penetrate your eyes and could lead to retinal damage. Chronic shorter-wavelength visible light (or blue and violet light) exposure could also damage the retina. A lot of digital devices give off this blue and violet light.
Lenses that allow beneficial blue light to pass through your lenses, but absorb damaging blue light have entered the marketplace. You can also use a special clear coating you apply to traditional lenses to help with their ability to block these damaging rays while you’re using smartphones and computers.
Dangers of UV Radiation for Your Eyes
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Weather Service has a color-coded, UV Index warning system, alerting individuals of certain dangers of being outside on certain days.
The EPA color-coded dangers are:
- Green (0 to 2): No risk to the average individual
- Yellow (3 to 5): Unprotected sun exposure causes little risk of danger
- Orange (6 to 7): Unprotected sun exposure causes a high risk of danger
- Red (8 to 10): Unprotected sun exposure causes a very high risk of danger
- Purple (11+): Unprotected sun exposure causes extreme risk of danger
Some eye issues have links to overexposure to UV radiation.
Most individuals realize the danger of UV radiation to the skin regarding damage and cancer. But, over time, the UV ray’s effects can cause various eye problems as well. These include the following:
If you expose your eyes to large amounts of UV radiation over a short period, you could experience photokeratitis. Photokeratitis is often called a corneal sunburn because it is like a “sunburn of your eye” and can be painful.
Long hours skiing or at the beach with no proper eye protection can lead to photokeratitis and could cause temporary vision loss in severe cases. This vision loss is referred to as “snow blindness” and typically only lasts for around 24 to 48 hours.
You have a higher risk of snow blindness at high altitudes. However, it can occur anywhere there’s snow if you don’t use UV-blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Symptoms of UV damage to eyes may include red eyes, excessive tearing, and a gritty feeling in your eyes. You may also experience extreme light sensitivity if you have photokeratitis.
These symptoms, fortunately, are typically temporary and don’t usually cause permanent eye damage.
2. Macular Degeneration
UV rays could result in macular degeneration — a top cause of vision loss in older adults in the U.S.
UV rays, particularly UVB rays, might also cause some types of cataracts. A cataract is the clouding of the natural lens of your eyes. This is the area of the eye that focuses on the light you see. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that overexposure to UV radiation causes 20 percent of cataracts, and thus, these cataracts are avoidable.
4. Pterygium and Pinguecula
These are abnormal surface eye growths that are UV-related. The growths start on the white of your eyes and might involve your cornea. Over time, the growth could block vision. It’s more common in individuals who work outside in the wind and sun. These eye surface growths can become unsightly and lead to distorted vision and corneal issues.
5. Skin Cancer
Skin cancer around your eyelids also associates with prolonged UV exposure.
Risk Factors for UV Damage to Your Eyes
Anybody spending time outside has a risk for UV radiation-related eye problems. And, risks of eye damage from HEV and UV exposure can change from day to day, depending on various factors, including:
- Time of day: The sun is at its strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. but depends on your time zone. This is called “solar noon.”
- Latitude: The UV will be stronger the closer you live to the equator. There is less atmosphere to filter out the rays when the sun is more directly overhead.
- Ozone level: The ozone provides more filtering the thicker it is in an area. In some areas, like Antarctica, the ozone layer is thinned. If you intend on traveling internationally, be sure to check an ozone map to see if where you’re visiting is one of these areas.
- Reflection: If you’re going to a lake or the beach on your vacation, be careful of the sun’s reflection on the sand and water. Dry sand can reflect UV by around 15 percent, and seafoam can reflect UV around 25 percent. The sun can also reflect off snow, pavement, and cars.
- Altitude: In the summertime, if you’re going in the mountains for a vacation, whether for hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter, be aware that a higher altitude has a thinner atmosphere. Therefore, more UV light can penetrate through. For every 1,000 meters above the sea level, there’s an increase of UV radiation levels by 10 to 12 percent.
- Setting: HEV and UV levels are greater in open, wide spaces, particularly when there are reflective surfaces around like sand and snow. UV exposure isn’t as likely in urban settings where tall buildings can shade the streets.
- Clouds: Even though it looks cloudy outdoors, you still need to take precautions against UV rays. While the levels of UV radiation are highest when there are no clouds around, UV rays can still penetrate through a light cloud cover. When UV rays are reflecting off snow, UV exposure may nearly double.
- Medicines: Certain medicines like sulfa drugs, tetracycline, diuretics, birth control pills, and tranquilizers can increase your body’s HEV and UV radiation sensitivity.
How to Protect Your Eyes From UV Damage
It’s best to learn how to protect your eyes from the sun all year long. Some ways of protecting your eyes from UV damage are:
- Wear proper sunglasses. Purchase sunglasses with the label “100 percent UV protection” or “UV400” on them. They don’t need to be expensive either as there are less costly sunglasses that carry this label but are just as effective. Color or darkness doesn’t indicate the UV protection strength. Remember, UV rays can penetrate through clouds, so wear sunglasses even on cloudy or overcast days. Don’t rely on your contacts to protect the entire area of the eye from burning rays, although they can offer some benefit depending on the contacts.
- Wear sunglasses in the shade. Even though the shade reduces your HEV and UV exposure to some degree, you still expose your eyes to UV rays that are reflected from roadways, buildings, and other surfaces when not wearing sunglasses.
- Wear sunglasses even with dark eyes and skin. While darker skin can offer you a lower risk of UV radiation-related skin cancer, your eye damage risk from HEV and UV rays is the same as a person’s who has fair skin.
- Keep in mind of UV-intense conditions. Be extra careful in certain conditions where UV rays are more intense such as at higher altitudes, mid-day to early afternoon, and in water, snow, or ice where the UV rays can reflect.
- Check your medications. The American Academy of Ophthalmology’s sun safety survey shows one in three adults take medicine that may cause their eyes to be more vulnerable to the damage of UV rays. These medications include estrogen pills, birth control, psoriasis treatments that contain psoralen, and certain antibiotics. Check all your prescription labels to ensure they don’t cause photosensitivity. If they do, avoid sun exposure if you can, and if you can’t, protect your eyes as much as possible.
- Don’t stare directly at the sun. Gazing directly at the sun can burn holes in your retina. This is a condition referred to as retinopathy. Although the damage is rare, it is irreversible.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Along with sunglasses, you may want to wear a hat with a wide brim. They can help cut harmful ray exposure.
- Don’t drive without UV eye protection. Your car windows aren’t thoroughly protecting you from UV light. A study found only 71 percent of rays were blocked by side car windows, compared to the windshield’s 96 percent. Only 14 percent of side car windows provide a strong enough level of protection. So make sure you’re wearing your sunglasses with the proper UV protection when you’re driving.
How to Protect Your Children From UV Light
Solar UV radiation damage to the skin and eyes is cumulative which means the harm continues growing throughout your life as you spend time in the sun. Therefore, it’s particularly important for children to protect their eyes from the harmful rays of the sun. Kids typically spend much more time than adults outside.
Experts say since kids tend to spend substantially more time outside than adults, up to half of an individual’s lifetime UV radiation exposure can occur by the time they turn 18 years old. Also, children are more vulnerable to UV ray-related retinal damage since the lens inside their eye is clearer than the lens of adults, allowing for more UV radiation to penetrate deep into their eyes.
So, ensure your children’s eyes are protected from the UV rays of the sun with photochromic lenses or good quality sunglasses when they go outside. Have them wear a hat on sunny days as well to help reduce their UV exposure even further.
How to Choose the Best Sunglasses for Sun Protection
How do sunglasses protect your eyes? Sunglasses can help you by filtering light and providing you with UV ray damage protection. For the best eye protection from the harmful UV and HEV rays of the sun, always wear high-quality sunglasses when you’re outside.
When choosing sunglasses, purchase ones that:
1. Have a Label
Manufacturers of sunglasses don’t always attach a label or tag stating the exact amount of UV radiation protection they provide. Only purchase sunglasses that clearly state the precise amount of UV ray protection they offer.
2. Protect Every Angle of your Eyes
Choose close-fitting or wraparound sunglasses with wide lenses for protecting your eyes from every angle.
3. Filter out 99 to 100 Percent of UV rays
The sunglasses should block both UVA and UVB rays.
4. Are Comfortable to Wear
If you choose a pair of sunglasses because they look good, but are not comfortable, you may opt not to wear them when you should.
5. Take Into Consideration Special Protection for Certain Activities
Be aware if you’re on the ski slopes — especially at high altitudes — at the beach, or on a boat, you’ll need to wear sunglasses that have a darker tint for blocking more light. Your eye damage risk from the sun is greater since the sun reflects off of snow and water.
You might also want to wear sports sunglasses or performance sunglasses, depending on your outdoor lifestyle.
For some outdoor activities, you might require eyewear also designed for additional protection:
- Cycling and biking: UV protection and protection from debris and wind
- Boating: UV protection and glare protection
- Winter sports: UV protection, polarized lenses for reducing brightness and glare, and amber, yellow, and orange-red tints for improving contrast
- Mountain climbing and hiking: UV protection and polarized lenses for reduced glare
- Racquetball and other ball sports: UV protection and protective eyewear
- Working outside with chemicals or power tools: UV protection and protective eyewear
6. Take Into Account Colors and Darkness
The degree of darkness and color sunglasses offer don’t have anything to do with their ability to block out UV radiation. For instance, a light amber-colored lens will likely provide you with the same UV protection as dark gray lenses. Ask your optician to verify if the lenses you select offer you 100 percent UV protection.
When it comes to HEV protection, however, color does matter. The sunglasses that block the most amount of blue light are usually reddish-brown, bronze, or copper-colored.
Again, you can ask your optician to help you find the best lenses for blocking blue light.
Special Sunglasses Considerations
Certain situations require special eye protection considerations. These include:
1. Adding Extra Protection With Contact Lenses
Don’t rely on your contact lenses to protect your eyes from UV light. However, certain contact lenses do offer UV protection. If your contact lenses don’t absorb UV light, you’ll need to wear sunglasses.
2. Being Careful in Certain Light Sources
Sunglasses won’t always protect your eyes from all intense light sources. For example, you can damage your eyes severely — even when wearing sunglasses — from the lights from tanning beds, gazing directly at the sun, performing arc welding, and looking at a solar eclipse
If you look at any of these intense light sources without proper protection, it can lead to photokeratitis or even cause retina damage, causing permanent central vision loss. Ask your ophthalmologist what appropriate measures you need to take to protect your eyes from these light sources and other special situations.
3. Protecting Against Photosensitivity as a Result of Taking Certain Medicines
If you have developed a sensitivity to light, also called photosensitivity, as a result of taking certain medications, check with your doctor to see if there is a replacement available. If not, wear sunglasses or photochromic lenses that adapt to light.
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