You are probably already aware of the dangers of overexposing your skin to ultraviolet (UV) rays, as well as the measures you can take to protect yourself from harm.
However, you might not be aware of the consequences of exposing your eyes to UV radiation. Although the eyelid is designed to protect the eye for various purposes, its skin is exceedingly thin and contains many fragile tissues that may be injured by UV light. Inside the eye, the crystaline lens – a transparent structure used to focus light onto the retina – also filters harmful UV radiation. But after doing so for many years, and without proper protection, the lens may become damaged and form a cataract, a progressive clouding and / or yellowing of the crystalline lens. According to the World Health Organization, cataracts are the most common cause of treatable blindness worldwide.
The eyes, unlike the skin, are maximally exposed when the sun is lower in the sky – anytime the sun is at or below an angle of about 45 degrees above the horizon. This means maximum UV radiation exposure to the eye can occur all day during winter, spring, and fall, and early and late in the day during the summer months.
While it’s important for all of us to protect our eyes, it’s critical that kids start protecting themselves early. They tend to spend more time outside, often without hats or sunglasses, and those under age 20 have less natural protection from UV radiation affecting the lens inside the eye. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a paper in 1999 that recommended the prevention of UV exposure in kids due to the potential damage it may have on the retina later in life.
As is the case with skin, UV exposure is associated with aging and can also lead to loss of clarity, redness and yellowing of the eye. While short-term damage to the eyes may be hard to notice, over the long term the sun can cause irreversible harm to the eye and surrounding tissue that is left unprotected or under-protected. These conditions may not be noticeable for years, by which time the damage is already done for some people, and it is too late to reverse the effects of the sun.
Therefore, it’s important for all ages to seek multiple layers of protection at all times when outdoors – all year long. This means wearing well-fitting UV-blocking sunglasses – preferably a wrap style – a hat for blocking midday sun, sunscreen for the skin and UV-blocking contact lenses, if contact lenses are appropriate for you. Although UV-blocking contact lenses provide important added protection for wearers, they should not be viewed as a stand-alone solution. Contact lenses should always be worn in conjunction with high-quality UV-blocking sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. You should ask your eye-care practitioner about his.
Remember these three basic principles in regard to UV protection for your eyes:
- You can never start too early – kids are especially vulnerable.
- You can never do too much – as with skin, multiple layers of protection are recommended.
- Don’t wait to start – UV damage to the eye is cumulative and often irreversible.
This article first appeared in the May issue of The Costco Connection. It is written by Dr. Cristina M. Schnider. She is senior director of professional programs at VISTAKON, a division of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care.