Getting a Clearer Vision of the Effects of UV Light on Our Eyesight

Smiling woman staring off in the distance using her hands to shield her eyes from sunlight

Most of us probably understand the link between ultraviolet (UV) radiation and skin cancer. Thankfully there is a lot of information available about the correlation between skin protection and cancer prevention. There are also countless types of sunscreens at different SPF levels (the topic of next week's blog) available at most convenience stores that help reinforce the awareness and importance of protecting our skin.

However, many of us are less aware of the connection between UV radiation and eye damage, so we often overlook the effect UV light can have on our eyes when not properly protected. With increased levels of UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface, it is important to take the necessary precautions to protect your eyes.

Both long- and short-term exposure to UV radiation can significantly damage our eyes, affect vision, and compromise overall eye health. There are several eye diseases and conditions caused or aggravated by exposure to UV radiation, such as:

  • Macular Degeneration. Macular Degeneration (AMD) is caused by damage to the retina over time and is the leading cause of age-related blindness. Extended exposure to UV light increases your risk of developing macular degeneration.
  • Cataracts. A cataract is a clouding of the eye's natural lens -- the part of the eye that focuses the light we see. UV light, especially UV-B rays, increases your risk for certain types of cataracts. It is estimated that 10% of all cataract cases are directly attributable to UV exposure.
  • Pterygium. Often called "surfer's eye," pterygium is a pink, non-cancerous growth that forms on the layer of conjunctiva over the white of your eye. UV light from the sun is believed to be a factor in the development of these growths.
  • Skin Cancer. Skin cancer in and around the eyelids is also linked to prolonged UV exposure.
  • Photokeratitis. Also known as corneal sunburn or "snow blindness," photokeratitis is the result of high short-term exposure to UV-B rays. Long hours at the beach or skiing without proper eye protection can cause this problem. It can be very painful and may cause temporary vision loss.

Who Is at Risk?

Everyone (including children) is at risk for eye damage from UV radiation that can lead to vision loss. Any factor that increases the amount of time you spend in the sun will increase your risk. If you answer 'yes' to more than one of these questions, you may be at higher risk of UV radiation damage to your eyes:

  • Do you spend long hours in the sun? (Skiing, mountain climbing, swimming, at the beach, etc.)
  • Do you use a sunlamp, tanning bed or booth?
  • Do you live in the mountains or the US Sunbelt?
  • Have you had cataract surgery (in one or both eyes) or do you have a retinal disorder?
  • Are you on certain medicines, such as tetracycline, sulfa drugs, birth control pills, diuretics and tranquilizers (that increase the eye's sensitivity to light)?
  • Are you a welder, medical technologist or do you work in the graphic arts or in the manufacturing of electronic circuit boards?

How Can I Protect My Eyes from UV Light?

Know the dangers. UV rays can come from many directions. They radiate directly from the sun, but they are also reflected from the ground, from water, snow, sand and other bright surfaces.

Wear proper eye protection and hats to block UV rays. To provide adequate protection for your eyes, sunglasses should:

  • Block out 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation
  • Screen out 75 to 90 percent of visible light
  • Be perfectly matched in color and free of distortion and imperfection
  • Have lenses that are gray for proper color recognition
  • If you spend a lot of time outdoors in bright sunlight, wrap-around frames can provide additional protection from harmful solar radiation.
  • Lastly, don't forget about protection for your children and teenagers, as they typically spend more time in the sun than adults.

By following these safety tips and protecting your eyes from the dangers of UV exposure, spending summer days outside in the sun can be both fun and safe.