“Here comes the sun,” the Beatles sang, “and it’s all right.” Although perhaps they should have substituted, “and if you don’t protect your eyes and skin, you can jolly well get a nasty sunburn and skin cancer and even long-term, irreversible eye damage.”
OK, we here at Rebuild Your Vision are clearly not in the running for a Grammy. But, as you head outside this month to weed your garden, skipper your sailboat, picnic in the park, or just head to work and back, here’s what you need to know to protect your eyes to prevent sun damage.
Fun Sun Facts
Children often draw the sun as a bright yellow circle that dominates everything else in the picture. Although the sun as seen in outer space is more white than yellow, the kids got it right. The sun is, by far, the largest object in the solar system, containing 99.8% of the system’s mass.
The sun’s white hue is symbolically apt. By human standards, it is ancient – about 4.5 billion years old. By its own standards, though, it is only middle-aged and will continue to radiate for perhaps another five billion years. During that time, its brightness will double. (And you thought you had it bad? Just think about the air-conditioning bills. Not to mention that future generations will probably have to mow their lawns in a spacesuit.)
The surface of the sun, called the photosphere, has a temperature of about 5,800 Kelvin. That’s 9,980 degrees Fahrenheit to you and me. And, it gets even hotter: the temperature at the sun’s core hovers around 15.6 million Kelvin. (The sun’s heat is produced by thermonuclear reactions that convert hydrogen to helium.) The light from the sun can cause the retina’s photosensitive pigments to get bleached out. Thus, causing temporary partial blindness. This is why we are taught not to look directly at the sun.
The Sun Gets in Your Eyes
If these facts aren’t enough to convince you to slather on the sunscreen and slap on some shades, consider the following.
The damage to your eyes from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays is cumulative and can cause pterygium. Pterygium is tissue growth on the whites of the eyes that can diminish vision. It can also lead to age-related macular degeneration, the deterioration of a part of the retina.
In addition, UV rays are the biggest culprit in the formation of cataracts. This study from The Lancet Global Health estimates there are 12 million people worldwide with blindness due to cataracts. As many as 20 percent of the cases may be due to UV radiation exposure.
With all that said, we know how relaxing and therapeutic the “sunning” technique from Dr Bates is. The sun is also an excellent source of vitamin D, not to mention a big lift to a “post-winter” soggy moral! Enjoy it in moderation and protect yourself from it the rest of the time.
How to Protect Your Eyes from Sun Damage
The best way to protect yourself from the sun is to stay out of it! This is not possible for most of us, so here are a few tips.
- UV radiation penetrates cloud layers, so protect your eyes even if you can’t see the sun.
- UV rays are most intense at midday, so try to avoid the sun between 10 am and 2 pm.
- Location matters: the higher your altitude, and the closer you are to the equator. And, the stronger the UV rays.
- Likewise, snow, sand, and water reflect light more strongly. Take extra precautions if you are at these places.
- Choose a good pair of sunglasses. Wearing a broad-brimmed hat doesn’t hurt, either.
- Light-colored eyes need more protection than dark ones.
- Don’t forget the little ones: children’s eyes are more vulnerable to sun damage.
Are All Sunglasses the Same?
When it comes to protecting your eyes from the sun, getting sunglasses should be your first move. But, not all sunglasses will protect your eyes equally. You need to get a pair that protects you from UVA and UVB rays.
Ultraviolet (UV) rays are the invisible but high-energy rays that beat down from the sun. They come in varying degrees of strength and length. UVA rays are long and can penetrate glass easily. They also enter the deepest level of your skin and tissue. UVB rays are denser and shorter. Although they aren’t as long as UVA rays, they do more immediate damage. These are the rays that cause you to get sunburned.
What about UVC rays? These elusive rays don’t actually hit the earth’s surface. Our atmosphere blocks them from reaching us.
It’s crucial you get sunglasses that specifically protect your eyes from at least 99 percent of UVA and UVB rays. If they don’t, they’re just fashion accessories with no real protective qualities. You’ll have to spend a little bit more on protective sunglasses, but it’s worth it. You’re protecting yourself from potentially developing cataracts later and thus, blindness.
Can the Eyes Get Sunburned?
One thousand times yes. Your eyes are very susceptible to getting burned, but it doesn’t look the same as a burn on the skin. It’s technically called photokeratitis.
Photokeratitis is the irritation of the eyes due to UVA and UVB exposure. The cornea gets inflamed and can feel gritty or like it’s tearing. You might also get swelling, redness, pain, blurry vision, or temporary vision loss. If that sounds scary, it’s just the start. Sometimes, it can take multiple days for these irritating symptoms to go away. And by then, it’s not without leaving permanent damage.
To protect your eyes from sunburns, don’t put sunscreen on them! Instead, wear protective eyewear when you’re outside. Wear a brimmed hat and stay in the shade when possible.
You need to protect your eyes from damage today, so you don’t experience consequences in the future. Getting sun damage now can lead to cataracts, AMD, and other eye diseases later. Follow the recommendations above to keep your eyes safe while you enjoy the great outdoors.