Healthy Living: Protecting your eyes from the summer sun

Warmer weather means more time outdoors. We know we need to protect our skin from the summer sun but what about our eyes?

We asked David I. Silbert, MD, FAAP, Incoming President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ophthalmology to answer our questions about summer eye protection.

Is eye health a concern during summer the months?

Yes, eye health is a concern during the summer months, but it is also a concern all the other months of the year.  If you have ever experienced snow blindness, you will understand how important sun protection can be.  Anytime you are outdoors, no matter the time of year, you should have sun protection on.

What length of time outside in the sun puts our eyes at risk of damage? 

Sun damage is cumulative. It is always best to have sunblock, sunglasses, and a wide brim hat on. The fact that it is only “10 minutes here and there” still adds up to a lot of sun exposure.

What type of damage can sun exposure/UV rays cause to our eyes?

Sun exposure and UV rays can exacerbate or lead to several different types of more serious eye conditions.

Excess ultraviolet radiation from sun exposure may lead to earlier development of cataracts and increase the need for cataract surgery at a younger age. Cataracts are an opacity that can develop in the lens of the eye and can decrease vision.

Pterygium and Pinguecula are unsightly and sometimes painful growths on the eye in sun-exposed areas. They are much more common in locations closer to the equator.

Pterygium are localized to the conjunctiva, or the whites of the eyes, causing elevation of the 3:00 and 9:00 positions of the eye, but sometimes the pinguecula can become angry and inflamed, causing permanent redness of the eye.

When they start to grow over the clear part of the eye (the cornea) they can impact vision and need to be removed surgically. On our medical mission trips to Ecuador, which is both on the equator and at high altitude, the sun is so strong that we see these growths even in young children. Proper sun glasses from a young age can prevent the development of these growths.

Additionally, It is hard to protect the skin around the eye with sunblock. A lot of people get far more sun exposure to their eyelids than is acceptable. This leads to high rates of skin cancers, especially of the lower eyelids. We see a lot of skin cancers around the eye even here in Lancaster, where folks are outside a few months per year.

I reconstruct eyelids after cancers are removed many times per month. If the lesions are large enough it is hard to get a really good cosmetic result, so prevention is key. The best protection against skin cancers of the eyelids is a good pair of sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection.

Other issues with sun exposure include general wrinkling and aging of the skin, as well as dark spots which are difficult to fix. Overall, less sun exposure will leave your skin and eyes looking good for years to come.

It’s also important never to look directly at the sun as direct viewing can cause burns of the retina and permanent vision loss.

Are certain populations (babies, children, adults, senior citizens) more at risk for eye damage from the sun? 

Much of the UV damage to our eyes and skin happened when we were young, before we realized the risk of sun exposure; however, damage can occur at any age.

It’s never too early to start with sun prevention. Babies are at high risk of sunburn, thus it is best that they sit under an umbrella and always wear a hat. Getting young children used to sunblock, hats, and sunglasses will lead to healthy habits that will protect the eyes and the skin around the eyes for a child’s entire life.

Other important things to remember is that the sun can reflect off surfaces, like snow and water, increasing the amount of UV exposure. If possible, it is best to avoid the strongest sun between 10 AM and 2 PM.

Do sunglasses help prevent damage? What type of glasses should we purchase?

The best way to prevent any of the above from occurring is to wear high quality sunglasses. Not all sunglasses are created equal. Always make sure to wear sunglasses that block at least 99% of UVA AND UVB! The larger the sunglasses, the better, as they block exposure to more of the eyelid skin surrounding the eye.

Wearing a poor-quality sunglass can actually increase the damage to your eyes. The dark color will allow for the pupil to dilate and more of the harmful UV rays can enter. We particularly like Maui Jim sunglasses and other sunglasses that have received the Seal of Approval from the Skin Cancer Foundation by blocking more than 99% of UVA and UVB. 

To ensure the best sunglasses for you, we recommend purchasing a good quality and well-fitting pair of sunglasses from a local eye care provider or local optician. They can make sure you have the protection and quality you need.

For a list of sunglasses recommended by The Skin Cancer Foundation, click here

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