Your Health

Sun’s rays can harm your eyes, even if you don’t look at it

Photo of many sunglasses on a rack.
Photo of Alanna Flynn. DR. ALANNA FLYNN
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, September 1, 2017

Eye health became an important topic of conversation for many recently, when observers were told not to look directly at the sun during last month’s solar eclipse. But while this was certainly good advice, the truth is that we need to protect our eyes from the sun even when we aren’t looking directly at it.

That’s because in addition to providing us with heat and light, the electromagnetic radiation emanating from the sun also includes potentially harmful ultraviolet rays, known as UV rays. Invisible to the eye, UV rays are divided into three categories: UV-A, UV-B and UV-C rays. While UV-C rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, UV-A and UV-B rays can reach the Earth’s surface.

In addition to increasing your risk for skin cancer, prolonged exposure to UV-A and UV-B rays also can damage the cornea, lens and retina of the eye. Among other things, this can lead to the hastened development of cataracts — a clouding of the natural lens in your eye that is the leading cause of blindness in the world — and age-related macular degeneration, a condition that causes distortion and decreased central vision. It can also lead to cancer or certain growths on the eye that may be cosmetically bothersome.

One way to protect your eyes is to wear sunglasses. But it is important to note that not all sunglasses are created equal. When you are picking out a pair of shades, be sure to choose sunglasses that are labelled "100% UV protection." This ensures the lenses block UV-A and UV-B rays alike.

The colour of the lenses does not matter; it is the UV rating that is important. This is one place where bigger is better — more coverage equals more protection, and wraparound styles are available to provide even more coverage. A wide-brimmed hat should round off your outdoor outfit as a secondary measure of protection against the sun’s rays.

These tips are especially important if you are spending time at the lake. The sun’s rays are reflected by bodies of water, a process that can strengthen the effect of the ultraviolet radiation.

Although the sun’s UV rays are most dangerous during the summer months, they can cause damage year-round, so it is always a good idea to wear your sunglasses even on a cloudy day. And remember, the sun’s rays can be reflected by snow in winter just as they are by water in summer. In fact, UV rays that reflect off snow can cause a painful condition called photokeratitis — also known as snow blindness — which is comparable to a sunburn on your eyeball.

Sun safety is important for people of all ages — from infants to the elderly. Today, there are many sunglass options available for babies and toddlers alike. So when you are slathering that sunscreen on your children, put on a pair of sunglasses on them, too. Not only will they look adorable, but it is also a responsible choice.

Finally, remember that the sun is not the only thing that can cause damage to your eyes. Always be sure to wear appropriate safety goggles when working with power tools and playing sports. Healthy adults should have an eye exam every two years, or more frequently as recommended by your optometrist or ophthalmologist.

Dr. Alanna Flynn is an ophthalmology resident at Misericordia Health Centre’s Buhler Eye Care Centre. This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, September 1, 2017.

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