Sunglasses can do more than make you look like a movie star — they can also help protect your eyes from the sun's harmful rays.
Sunlight Can Be Dangerous
To your eyes, every day is a sunny day. Every time you watch a baseball game, lounge on the beach, mow the grass or enjoy a day at the park — your eyes are exposed to the sun.
"The sun, particularly ultraviolet (UV) light in sunlight, can cause damage to many parts of the eye," said optometrist Christopher J. Quinn, OD, president of Omni Eye Services in Iselin, NJ, in an interview with dailyRx News. "Prolonged exposure is associated with cataract formation and may be a risk factor for the development of age related macular degeneration. Additionally, excessive sun exposure can cause damage to the thin and delicate skin of the eyelids."
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), UV rays are especially dangerous because they have high energy — which can age skin cells and damage their DNA. Even though UV rays make up only a very small portion of the sun’s rays, they are the main cause of the sun’s damaging effects on the skin.
Results of Sun Damage
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), the following problems can occur from sun exposure:
Cumulative UV exposure can damage the retina, which is a sensitive structure at the back of the eye. The sections of the retina which are often damaged by UV exposure are also often near the eye's center focal point because this area receives the most light. When these sections are damaged, loss of vision can result.
UV damage can also occur in an eye's lens. This damage causes cataracts (a cloudiness and yellowing of the lens), but these can often be corrected with surgery.
Cancers of The Eye
Skin cancers — such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma — can occur on the eyelid as a result of sun damage. According to the ACS, eyelid cancers account for 5 to 10 percent of all skin cancers.
Talk to your doctor about any lumps or bumps on your eyes that persist or bleed, any lesions with irregular borders or growth, any inflammation that doesn't go away and any unexplained loss of eyelashes. These may all be warning signs of eyelid cancer.
The ACS warns that melanoma can also occur on the surface of the eye or in the middle tissues inside the eye. Warning signs for melanoma are blurry vision, visual field loss, bulging of the eye and change in pupil shape. If left untreated, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body.
According to the American Optometric Association, the cornea (outer membrane of the eye) can become irritated by overexposure to the sun. Think of it like a sunburn of the eye tissue. The symptoms of photokeratitis may include red eyes, a sensation of grittiness in the eyes, sensitivity to light and excessive tear production.
Who's at Risk?
While everyone is at risk for sun damage, according to the SCF, some may be more at risk than others. This is because the body naturally produces a pigment called melanin — which is what gives skin, hair and eyes their color. Blue or green eyes have less melanin pigment, while brown eyes have more.
Melanin protects against sun damage, which means that fair-skinned people may be at higher risk for sunburn than those with darker skin.
Regardless of your complexion or eye color, however, the SCF recommends protecting your eyes and skin from the sun.
The SCF recommends checking your sunglasses' label for protection against both UVA and UVB rays and choosing large-framed shades that cover the area around the eyes.
"The eye can be protected by making sure eyewear contains UV protection and then making sure the eyewear is worn when high exposure to sunlight is expected," Dr. Quinn said. "This is particularly important during peak sunlight hours and in environments with both direct and reflected light."
If you can't wear sunglasses, wear a wide-brimmed hat that extends at least 3 inches from your face on all sides.
The SCF also recommends staying in the shade during peak sunlight hours. Remember, your skin can be just as easily damaged by the sun as your eyes.