Most people are now aware of the damage the sun can do to one’s skin, but it’s equally important to protect one’s eyes as exposure to UV rays can cause cancer and other diseases of the eye.
“You have to think of sunglasses as sunblock for the eye,” says Victoria Anderson, the Cayman Islands Cancer Society’s programme coordinator.
“We don’t see UVA rays, but they affect the skin and the eyes. UVA does not take a holiday,” she adds.
Even on cloudy days, UVA rays from the sun come through, so people should wear sunscreen and sunglasses even on days when the sun is not blazing down, she says.
And while a person’s body can replace skin cells damaged by the sun, the cells of the eyes, once damaged, cannot be repaired. “The eyes can never be replaced,” said Anderson.
What to buy
Visit any pharmacy, sports shop, optical store or even your local supermarket and you’ll be faced with a dizzying array of sunglasses to choose from.
As well as all types of frames, you are also faced with a bewildering selection of polarised lenses, reflective mirror lenses, blue, black or brown lenses and many others. Which should you pick to best protect your eyes?
Anderson says wearers should choose large lensed, wraparound frames that to ensure that the harmful UV rays do not go around the glasses.
“When you look for sunglasses, some people might think ‘I am going to go for something pricey or a name brand, but the price, the brand name or the colour of the lenses do not indicate how effective glasses are in protecting against UVA rays,” says Anderson.
Choose sunglasses that protect against 99 to 100 per cent of UVA radiation. Those are glasses that are labelled as “UV 400,” which blocks all light rays with wavelengths up to 400 nanometers. This covers all of UVA and UVB rays.
Anderson says it does not matter whether your sunglasses cost you $10 or $100 – so long as the glasses protect against 400nm of the sun’s ray, they should be able to protect your eyes.
Hats also offer some protection for your eyes against the sun’s rays.
The rays do not just come directly from the sun. They are also reflected off the sea, sand, car windscreens, concrete and asphalt, says Anderson.
She advises people who are getting prescription lenses specially made for them to check with their opticians that the lenses are UV 400.
It is also important to protect children’s eyes, especially in places like Cayman with its excess of sunshine all year round.
Exposure of very young children to UV radiation should be limited. During these times, ensure children are wearing a sun protective hat and protective clothing in order to limit their UV radiation exposure.
Wearing a hat provides some protection to the eyes, but once children are old enough to manage wearing sunglasses, they should be encouraged to do so if they have to be outside at times of high UV levels.
When choosing sunglasses for a child, avoid buying sunglasses that are labelled as toys, and again, only choose sunglasses for children that also offer UV 400 protection.
Sunglasses that are labelled “cosmetic” and that don’t offer details on UV protection should be avoided.
Failing to protect one’s eyes properly can lead to many different types of long-term and short-term damage.
Short-term complaints include mild irritations, such as excessive blinking, swelling, or difficulty looking at strong light. UV exposure also causes acute photo keratopathy, which is basically sunburn of the cornea.
Exposure to UV radiation over long periods can result in more serious eye damage, including cataracts, pterygium which is an abnormal, but usually non-cancerous, growth in the corner of the eye, solar keratopathy, cancer of the conjunctiva, and skin cancer of the eyelids and around the eyes. There is also research that suggest UVA rays play a role in the development of macular degeneration.
Eyes can also develop melanoma, which is more commonly associated with the skin. Eye colour plays a part in this as people with light coloured eyes of blue, grey, or green are prone to melanoma, but it has been found that people who have experienced long-term exposure to the sun are also prone to eye cancers.
Treatments of eye cancers depend on the type of eye cancer, the size and how far it has spread. Treatments include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
UVB rays are filtered partially by the ozone layer, but some still reach the earth’s surface. In low doses, UVB radiation stimulates the production of skin pigment, or melanin, which create a suntan. In higher doses, UVB rays cause sunburn and increase the risk of skin cancer, as well as cause premature aging.
UVA rays are closer to visible light rays. They can pass through the cornea and reach the lens and retina inside the eye.