Keeping Your Eyes Safe in the Sun

December 28, 2015


tourism, travel, people, leisure and teenage concept - group of happy friends in sunglasses hugging and laughing on city street

Protecting your eyes from harmful ultraviolet light is extremely important and one of the most fundamental things that you can do to keep your eyes and vision healthy. Ms. Nancy Kirsch, the University Eye Center’s director of ophthalmic dispensing, explains why:

Can you tell us why ultraviolet (UV) protection is important for your eyes?

We are all aware of the risks of sunburn and skin cancer from UV radiation from the sun.  With the thinning of the ozone layer that protects the earth from UV, combined with an increase in life expectancy, our risk for UV exposure is greater than ever before. But we often forget that these same harmful rays can also contribute to a variety of eye and vision related issues as well. This exposure can cause everything from sunburn of the cornea and the skin surrounding the eyes and wrinkles, to the early onset of serious sight-stealing diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration. UV exposure can also cause conditions such as photokeratitis (“snow blindness”), pinguecula (a yellowish, slightly raised thickening of the conjunctiva on the white part of the eye) and pterygia (a growth that covers the white part of the eye and extends onto the cornea.)

The risk of damage to our eyes and skin from UV radiation is cumulative – the danger continues to grow as we spend time in the sun throughout our lifetime.  This is why it is especially important to protect your children’s eyes from the sun, as well.

Is all UV protection the same? Are the less expensive glasses and sunglasses with UV protection as beneficial as the more expensive kinds?

The most important considerations when choosing sunglasses are the frames and the lens materials. Do the frames provide you with proper coverage? Besides looking great, your frames should fit close to your face and ideally have a slight wrap around effect to prevent any UV coming in from the sides.  Certain lens materials—polycarbonate, high index, Trivex, polarized and photochromics—are inherently 100% UV absorptive. A UV coating can also be added to plastic lenses for maximum absorption.

While less expensive sunglasses may provide UV protection, they are generally made with inferior quality lenses and frame materials. If the lens itself has distortions or waves, looking through it can be uncomfortable.

Does the color of the lens matter? Does a darker lens mean more UV protection?

A darker lens does not equate to greater UV protection. You can choose a color for your sunglass lenses based on preference. The most popular colors for sun lenses are gray, brown and gray-green.  A photochromic (or changeable) lens in its lightest state can absorb more UV radiation than a dark sun lens without a proper UV filter.

With all of the choices available to you as the consumer, it’s best to trust your eye care professional in assisting you in choosing the best possible protective sun wear.

We often think about the need for UV protection in the summer but is it necessary all year long too?

Anyone spending time outdoors is at risk for eye conditions from UV radiation. Some of the factors related to this risk include things like altitude and geographic location—the higher your altitude and the closer you are to the equator the greater your exposure to UV—as well as the time of day—UV levels are at their greatest between 10am and 2pm.

It’s important to realize, however, that about half of the UV radiation that reaches us comes from reflection—typically from the ground, sky, water and windows—not directly from the sun. Exposure can almost double in wide open spaces when there are reflective surfaces around like snow and sand. Typically there is less UV present in urban settings where shade is created by tall buildings.

Because UV is an invisible radiation and not visible light, you can even be exposed to high UV levels when there is cloud cover. This is why wearing protection every day, regardless of the season, is very important.

KirschNancyMs. Nancy Kirsch is the director of ophthalmic dispensing at the University Eye Center and an assistant clinical professor at the SUNY College of Optometry.

To schedule an appointment call (212) 938-4001 or click here