Ultraviolet Exposure and the Eye

Almost everyone is aware of the harm the sun can do to your skin, but you might be surprised to learn that exposure to ultraviolet radiation, or UV, can also be damaging to the eyes. Before you squirt a little sunscreen in your eyes, let’s take a look at understanding risks and proper preventative measures which can help guard your eyes from future harm.


Our eyes are exposed to UV radiation from the sun throughout the year, even on cloudy days, and can also come from tanning beds, lasers, and some welding equipment (those fancy goggles and shields aren’t just fashion statements!). There are three types of UV radiation from the sun: UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C. UV-C rays are almost completely absorbed by the ozone layer and so provide minimal threat. UV-B rays penetrate the eye on a superficial level while UV-A rays penetrate further into the eye.


Short term extreme exposure to the sun can result in a condition called photokeratitis. Memorial Day on the lake, anyone? Photokeratitis is like a “sunburn of the eye” and is also the cause of “snow blindness”. Symptoms include redness, pain, foreign body sensation, light sensitivity, and tearing. This condition is generally temporary and does not cause any permanent loss of vision.


Long term exposure to UV rays can lead to problems that develop slowly over time. UV-B rays are believed to contribute to the formation of growths on the white part of the eye such as a pinguecula or a pterygium. These growths can cause discomfort, be cosmetically unappealing, and sometimes even distort vision. UV-A rays are thought to increase your risk for cataract formation later in life and also the development of macular degeneration. Both of these conditions can cause serious vision loss.


The risk of this kind of damage is cumulative, so the more time you spend outside throughout your lifetime, the greater your risk. In fact, the threat starts early. Some experts believe up to half of lifetime exposure happens before the age of 18. Children generally spend more time outside and they are more susceptible because the crystalline lens inside their eye is clearer than an adult allowing more light through to the retina.


So enough with the gloom and doom – what can we do about it? The American Optometric Association recommends wearing quality sunglasses that block out 99 to 100 percent of UV-A and UV-B radiation when spending time outside. The more a frame wraps around your face, the better. The addition of a wide brimmed cap or hat will also limit peripheral exposure as well. Kind of makes you feel bad for making fun of your grandmother’s floppy gardening hat, huh? Parents: invest in protective sunwear early and help your children decrease their risk for eye disease later. Plus, there is nothing more adorable than babies in sunglasses. Some contact lens brands, such as Acuvue Oasys, also provide some UV protection. If you already wear prescription glasses, fit-over or clip-on sunglasses are a good solution as well.


Talk to your optician or optometrist about all of the options they can offer to help protect your eyes!