As of 2007, Cancer Council Australia now tells us to slide on some sunnies as well as slipping on protective clothing, slopping on sunscreen, slapping on a hat and seeking shade. But can sun exposure really affect the way we see the world, and can you really get sunburned eyes as you can sunburned skin? Let’s take a look at the potential problems and how to protect your eyes against damage.
How does the sun damage your eyes?
You may well remember being told never to look directly at the sun as a kid, and this message is reinforced whenever there’s a solar eclipse too. That’s because staring right at the sun sends ultraviolet energy straight into the lens of your eye which can lead to a central blind spot or blurry vision, known as solar retinopathy[i].
Even indirect UV radiation from the sun causes damage to the eyes. With excess exposure people can experience photokeratitis, a type of inflammation which is essentially sunburn of the eyes[ii]. You may know this better as ‘snow blindness’, as it can be a common experience for skiers on reflective snowfields. Excess exposure to UVB radiation can also cause cataracts (where the lens becomes cloudy), macular degeneration (or retina damage), pterygium (where the conjunctiva overgrows) and climatic droplet keratopathy (where the cornea becomes cloudy)ii. It is even possible for cancer cells to develop on and around the eye – including the eyelids - as a result of UV exposure. It’s now thought that childhood exposure can lead to potential problems later in life[iii], which is why it’s so important to protect yourself at all ages and stages of life.
Three easy tips to avoid eye damage from sun exposure
Keep these three simple steps in mind to help prevent sun damage to eyes, as part of the Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide message:
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat
Wearing a broad-brimmed hat can cut the amount of glare in your eyes and block some reflected and scattered light.
- Seek shade
Be aware of any reflective surfaces such as water and snow, and stay in the shade whenever possible.
- Slip on rated sunglasses
Find a pair of high-rated, close-fitting and wraparound sunglasses and wear these when your eyes are exposed to sunlight.
How do you find the right protective pair of sunnies?
First, check for the rating on the tag. In Australia all sunglasses are required to be tested and rated with a classification ranging from category zero (that provide minimal protection and are technically classed as fashion spectacles) to category four (which provide special-purpose protection). If glasses have an Eye Protection Factor (EPF) on the label, aim to choose an option rated at 9 or 10 for the best defence.
For children, look for at least category two or above which will absorb more than 95% of the UV radiation passing through the sunglass lens. The best designs are those that wrap around and sit close to your face, as this allows less light to enter your eyes. If you’re at work or in an industrial setting, sun protective eyewear should comply with AS1067 and AS/NZS1337 standards[iv].
Don’t presume that tint in the lenses confers actual protection to your eyes.
With a little care and some easy preventative measures, we can easily minimise the harm to our eyes and skin from sun exposure.