Why is UV protection for the eyes important? Just as UV rays cause cause damage to the skin, they can also cause damage to the eyes – all surfaces from the front to the back of the eye. To protect our skin, we were sunscreen. To shield our eyes, there are multiple ways to layer on UV protection. It is important that we understand what does and does not constitute as proper UV protection because there are a lot of products to choose from.

Ultra-violet rays can cause damage to all surfaces of the eye. Starting from the front, excessive exposure can cause photokeratitis – aka sunburn on the eyes. If this happens, it is a very painful condition as your cornea is one of the most sensitive surfaces. Common symptoms include, burning sensation, sharp pain, tearing, light sensitivity, and blurry vision. In order for this condition to heal, you simply need to let the corneal cells regenerate – which equates to time just like when the skin gets sun burned. Staying out of the sun and not wearing contact lenses will aid with the healing process. Over-the-counter pain relievers are an option if needed for pain relief as well.

Milder form of UV damage to the eyes include pingueculae. These are small fleshy growths/thickening of the conjunctiva that overlays the sclera (white pare of the eye). These growths are harmless but if continually exposed to UV they can grow into pterygium that stretch onto the cornea (front surface of the eye). Pterygium pose more of a threat as they can alter your prescription (induce astigmatism) and grow far enough to block your line of vision. Surgical removal is required to ensure the cornea is not permanently damaged.

As we move towards the back of the eye, the lens is the next structured that can be damaged by UV exposure. Although we all develop cataracts eventually, exposing our eyes to UV can accelerate the rate at which cataracts grow. In North America, cataracts are not as prevalent due to majority of the population wearing sunglasses – whether it be for fashion or prevention reasons. In third-world countries where the education around UV damage is not wide spread and the access to sunglasses is considered a luxury, cataracts are much more prevalent at younger ages (people in their 40’s versus people in their 70’s in North America). Surgery is the only treatment for cataracts.

In the back of the eye, if UV happens to reach the retina, it can cause irreversible damage. This was the huge concern revolving around the solar eclipse as many people would be staring directly at the sun without the proper eye wear. Essentially the sun is burning holes into your retina (worst of all the macula – where you get the sharpest vision) that cannot be reversed. Spending time in the sun without wearing sunglasses will mostly not cause this degree of damage unless you are looking directly at the sun for over a few seconds. The others mentioned above are more likely to result from overall UV exposure.

There are many methods in which we can protect our eyes from UV exposure. Certain contact lenses contain UVA/UVB protection (Acuvue is our doctor’s favourite and what she wears), sunglasses (ensure that the lenses either have UV400 coating or provide UVA/UVB protection), and wearing hats all work. It is best to layer the protection (use all 3 or a combination) rather than to depend on just one method. Don’t be fooled by the darkness or reflectance of the lenses. The actual UV protection is a coating that is applied to the lenses – the tint only changes how much light is let through and mirror coatings reflect light. There are also certain lens materials that naturally protect against UV. If you’re ever unsure, bring your sunglasses to your optometrist and they can help answer your questions.


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