Most people know it’s important to use sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer and premature aging of the skin. But did you know that eyes are also susceptible to sun damage? In fact, our eyes may require even greater protection from the sun to prevent serious vision problems.

Benefits and dangers of sunlight

Sunlight is beneficial in many ways. For example, it helps our bodies produce vitamin D, which has many health benefits. But too much sun can cause eye discomfort, blurred eyesight and even permanent vision loss.

Eye problems associated with overexposure to sunlight include sunburn of the front surface of the eye (photokeratitis or snow blindness), cataracts and macular degeneration.

The rays to beware of: Not all of the suns rays pose a threat. But these higher-energy rays can cause eye damage:

UV rays The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays have the highest energy. This radiation is further classified as UVA, UVB and UVC. Only UVA and UVB rays reach the surface of the Earth UVC rays are blocked by the atmosphere’s ozone layer.

UVA rays are less intense than UVB, but are more prevalent and can penetrate deeper into the eye. Solar UVA has been associated with the development of cataracts and macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of permanent vision loss among older Americans. UVB rays are much more intense than UVA but cannot penetrate the front surface of the eye. Therefore, eye damage from UVB is limited to the cornea, as in the case of snow blindness, and the white of the eye (sclera).

HEV rays HEV is short for high-energy visible. HEV rays have less energy than UV rays (which are invisible) but can still cause eye damage. Another term for HEV radiation is blue light. Like UVA radiation, HEV rays can penetrate deep into the eye and may increase the risk for macular degeneration.

The fix: A good pair of sunglasses
Preventing eye damage from the sun is easy just purchase and wear quality sunglasses with these features:

  • Lenses that block 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays and filter HEV rays
  • Frames that fit comfortably and position the lenses for maximum eye coverage
  • Polarized lenses should be considered for extra glare protection

For the best results, seek the advice of an eye care professional to help you choose sunglasses that best protect your eyes, fit properly and meet your lifestyle needs.

Start eye protection early
Eye damage from sunlight exposure accumulates over time. For the greatest safety, wearing sunglasses should begin in early childhood and continue throughout life.
By all means, get outside and enjoy the sunshine! Just keep those harmful solar rays away from your eyes with a good pair of shades.

Gary Heiting, O.D., is an optometrist and senior editor of All About Vision. Visit AllAboutVision.com for more doctor-approved information about eye care and eyewear.