Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Protect Yourself from Sunburn with....Sun Glasses?

A few days ago, I saw that Anderson Cooper was in the news for sunburning his eyes. The strange thing is, this is the second reference to eye sunburn that I have heard in the last week!

Since I finally bought my first pair of prescription sunglasses about a month ago, this seems like a good time to talk about the importance of eye protection for your health (you know, now that I can self-righteously say I have actually been following the right advice).

I stopped wearing contacts about three years ago due to the problems I was having working on a computer for eight to ten hours a day. After trying multiple brands of lenses and solution, I decided glasses were easier and suited me just fine. But that meant I could no longer wear traditional sunglasses. So I went without. During the months of the year when the sun got particularly bright while driving, I put down my visor and/or  squinted. I reasoned that $500 for a fashion statement was just not worth it.

Recently, however, I saw that a local store was having a sale for 40% off prescription sunglasses, so I went for it! With the discount, and avoiding all of the fancy-schmancy add-ons, they were more affordable than I had imagined. Now, after reading more about the damage the sun can do to my eyes, I am so thankful I got them. My family has a history of skin cancer, so I apply sun block religiously when I will be in the sun for more than thirty minutes. It never occurred to me that sun exposure also puts me at higher risk for another family disease, macular degeneration, which ultimately led my grandmother to be legally blind beyond correction.

According to GalTime online magazine, an eye sunburn will causes irritation and will typically feel like there is grit in your eyes that cannot be removed with water. It can even lead to photokeratitis, or temporary vision loss, commonly referred to as snow blindness. (Anderson Cooper had both of these symptoms.) If your eyes are sunburned, the only things you can do are stay out of the sun, use lubricating eye drops, and wait up to a week to heal. If that does not correct the issue, or if the pain is strong/gets worse, seek medical attention immediately.

Sun exposure not only has the potential to cause temporary irritation and blindness, but it can also have long-term effects. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, exposure to ultraviolet light can increase your risk of developing cataracts, macular degeneration (as I mentioned above with my grandmother), and eye growths, including cancer. Light-sensitive cells in your eyes may also be important to getting a restful night's sleep. A moderate amount of natural light during the day is believed to help these cells function, but over-exposure to sunlight can cause damage.

Jennifer Ko, photo taken by Jason Ko
In the past, most sunglasses were simply tinted glass or plastic that blocked out some portion of visible light. This made it possible to look directly at bright reflections or even at the sun itself without causing pain or a blink reflex. Unfortunately, while visible light is what makes us blink when we look at the sun, it is not what causes the actual damage to our eyes. It is the ultraviolet light (UV rays) which are not visible that can burn our skin and eyes. By making it easier to look directly at the sun, these tinted glasses actually caused more harm than good, because they allowed UV rays to go directly into the retina, without the wearer feeling a thing. These types of glasses gave the illusion of protection by repressing the blink reflex. But we have that reflex for a reason! Nowadays, fewer and fewer sunglasses are simply tinted glass; many, if not most, also have polarization to block out unseen harmful rays.

So lesson number one is to only buy sunglasses that block out at least 95% of ultraviolet A rays and 99% of ultraviolet B rays. The ability to block UV rays is not determined by how dark the lenses are or the price tag on the frames, so don't be fooled! Look for a special label that describes the UV protection, or if purchasing prescription sunglasses, make sure to ask your provider if this protection is included.

Secondly, choose sunglasses with a larger lens to protect your eyes more fully. Sun rays can enter your eyes from any direction, so the more coverage, the better. (Lucky for you, big glasses are cool these days!) It is also a good idea to wear a hat if you are out in the open. When skiing, it is especially critical to wear sun glasses or goggles that provide the full range protection, including from the snow reflecting under your feet.

Thirdly, the American Academy of Ophthalmology also warns that UV rays can pass through clouds, so it is safest to continue wearing your sunglasses when outside during the day, even if the sun is hiding. This is especially true when the sun is highest in the sky, between about 10am and 2pm. (I have not been so good at this one yet, because I don't think of putting on the sunglasses unless my eyes feel irritated by the visible light. I am hoping to make this a new habit.) The same applies to a solar eclipse; while it may not feel bad in the same way as staring directly at the midday sun, it can be just as damaging.

And lastly, the UV rays from tanning beds can also cause eye damage. Tanning beds can produce UV levels up to one hundred times what we receive naturally from the sun. My best advice would be not to engage in indoor tanning at all, since it is known to significantly increase your risk of skin cancer and eye disease. For example, according to "The Skin Cancer Foundation," a study from the International Journal of Cancer found that those who used indoor tanning before the age of 35 had a 75% higher likelihood of getting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. While the tanning industry has gone to great lengths to state that these claims are false, for your own sake, please believe the scientists who say it is true - they are right. However, if you still plan to hit the salon on occasion, as I know is the reality for many individuals, take adequate precautions to limit the damage to your eyes by wearing polarized tanning goggles. Simply shutting your eyes or putting a towel over them actually does not block out enough UV rays to prevent damage.

Polarized sun glasses are an important aspect of preventative medicine for the eyes. I am happy that I look hip in my new shades (notice my cool lingo now that I have purchased them), but I am even happier that they can be so much more than the latest fashion statement!

Photo Credit:
  • Special thanks to my awesome and beautiful friend, Jen Ko, for letting me use her photo from her fashion blog, "Life Unrefined." She is a talented writer, a fashionable dresser, and an even better person. Her blog's tag line is, "Beauty is Authenticity," and I can say without hesitation that Jen is one of the most authentic and encouraging people I know. Check out her site! www.lifeunrefined.com
Article Sources:


  1. It didn't occur to me to wear sunglasses even when it's cloudy. I always learn so much from you! :)

  2. Note to all posters: I will remove and report any SPAM advertisements for sunglasses here. So please just stop. Thanks!