When I was about seventeen, my then-Prince Charming told me the sun brought out gold flecks in my (otherwise unremarkable) brown eyes. At that moment, swept away by his gorgeous greens, I vowed never to wear sunglasses again.
Years later, with several more Prince Charmings under my belt, I renege on that vow. It’s not just because a pair of shades is often the perfect summer outfit accessory; it occurred to my older and hopefully wiser self that since we do so much to protect our skin from the sun, our eyes should get the some attention too.
Since July is UV Safety Month, now is a great time to figure out the right way to shield our precious eyes while we’re out and about in the sun.
When the Heat Is On, Sweat the Small Spots
Whether you’re a sun-worshipper or pale as a vampire, you know how important it is to slather on some SPF whenever you go outside, and especially when UV rays are at their strongest (from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). We’ve all heard the horror stories about skin cancer, and have listened to warnings from well-meaning older women about wrinkles and age spots.
But we don’t ever seem to think about how vulnerable our eyes are to the same harmful UV rays. Our eyes do absorb these rays, putting us at greater risk for cataracts, pterygium (a growth of the conjunctiva that can cause astigmatism and corneal scarring), and age-related macular degeneration. The delicate skin around the eyes also needs to be protected from small woes like crow’s feet and sunburn, as well as larger ones like skin cancer.
“UV rays can promote changes in our eye tissue and once this damage occurs, it cannot be reversed,” says Samir Shah of Henry Ford Eye Care Services.
Who L-UVs the Sun?
The science behind sun worship seems to be getting more complicated by the minute. First we had to worry about UV rays; then we learned there were two kinds of rays out to get us. What’s the deal there?
Scientists divide the ultraviolet rays that reach the earth’s surface from the sun into two categories: UVA and UVB. Both contribute to skin cancer. UVA rays are more prevalent and less harmful. UVB are more potent, and—here’s the kicker—are responsible for both vitamin D and sunburns. That kiss of sun also happens to be a slap in the face. Find a happy medium by reducing sun exposure to fifteen minute intervals. That will be long enough to get important vitamin D for your bones, but not long enough to be burned.
Another painful paradox: Clouds usually block 70 to 90 percent of UV rays on overcast days, especially UVBs. But under partly cloudy conditions, a phenomenon called the “broken cloud” effect allows higher UV levels to reach the earth than during clear skies, because the rays refract through and reflect off the clouds. Haze, similarly, amplifies and distributes UV rays. The rays are also stronger at higher altitudes, where it’s usually cloudier and the clouds are closer to us.
See the Light
The bottom line is that there’s no escaping cancer-causing UV light, there’s only protection from it. Dr. Shah recommends a few simple steps for protecting your eyes from the dangers of UV radiation whenever you go outside.
Wear sunglasses that are clearly labeled with 99 to 100 percent UVA and UVB protection. They don’t need to be expensive, and you don’t need a prescription. In fact, most expensive sunglasses only protect against UVA rays; UVBs travel at a different speed, so they need a thicker coating to keep them from refracting into your eyes. Drugstores carry lenses with this coating for only a few dollars.
Be like Nicole Ritchie. Well, at least copy her sunglasses. They’re huge and they cover most of the delicate skin around her eyes that is sensitive to sunburn. And they look pretty cool doing it, too. If you can find glasses with side coverage, like a pair of wraparounds, go for those. Not only will they protect you from skin cancer, they’ll deter the development of crow’s feet. And if you wear contact lenses with UV protection, you still need to wear sunglasses. The lenses only protect your irises, not your whole eye area.
Tint is not protection. Darker tinted glasses only distort your perception. Lighter tints might be more comfortable to wear. You can also opt for polarized lenses, which cut glare, and mirrored lenses, which reflect heat and can keep you feeling cool under the summer sun.
Put a lid on it. Invest in a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face. Even the biggest pair of wraparounds can’t keep the sun from getting in behind the glasses. And while you’re at it, dab some mild sun block around your eye area, being careful not to get any in your eyes.
Keep an Eye Out for Little Peepers, Too
According to Mark Borchert, a pediatric ophthalmologist and director of The Vision Center in Los Angeles, children’s lenses allow 70 percent more UV rays to reach their delicate retinas than do adult lenses. Their eyes are also more sensitive to damage, and they tend to spend more time playing outside during peak UV exposure periods, so it’s important to make sure that children are also protected from the sun.
Children don’t really wear sunglasses, but they should. All children who go outside need some kind of protective eyewear. You can get kids’ sunglasses cheaply at the drugstore, and your little sun gods and goddesses will have a lot of fun picking out funky designs for themselves. Children under age six should wear glasses with Velcro to keep the shades from falling out of their ears.
It’s possible to go really over-the-top here. Researchers at the National Eye Institute recommend that if you have older kids who play sports, they should wear UV goggles that will protect their eyes from both the sun and flying balls. I wonder if any of those researchers actually have children, especially teenagers. Protective hats and sunglasses are only helpful when they’re comfortable enough for you to wear them consistently, so finding realistic ways to keep you and your kids from too much sun exposure is far more important than simply buying tons of gear that will sit in the closet unused.
Through Glasses, Brightly
To answer the question about how much protection our eyes need from the sun: they need a lot. Our eyes are among the most delicate tissues in our bodies, and not taking care of them can result in some serious, irreparable damage.
We do need sun for vitamin D, but we also need to keep from getting too much of it. Balance is key. Wearing sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection and plenty of eye coverage, and throwing a hat on are simple steps that can do a lot. Apply sun block to the skin around your eyes just as you would to the skin on the rest of your body. Then, without spending your whole summer stressing about those insidious rays, you’ll have covered your bases … and faces.