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On National Sunglasses Day, learn how to keep your eyes safe from UV rays

On National Sunglasses Day, learn how to keep your eyes safe from UV rays

When it comes to harmful effects of the sun, skin damage and skin cancer are usually top of mind.

Today, though, the focus is on a different part of your body that also can be a casualty of too much of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays – your eyes. It’s National Sunglasses Day, a great excuse to look at how your eyes can be hurt by the sun and how protection, including sunglasses, is key to helping avoid vision trouble down the line.

Did You Know?

Children’s eyes cannot filter UV light as effectively as adults’ ocular lenses. This results in children’s retinas being exposed to more UV light and susceptible to retinal damage if they are not adequately protected. - Source: The Vision Council Foundation

“Your skin isn’t the only part of you that needs protection from the sun this summer. Don’t forget about your eyes,” says ophthalmologist Christine Saad, MD, Associate Chief, Division of Ophthalmology, Lehigh Valley Health Network. Dr. Saad, with Lehigh Valley Institute for Surgical Excellence, also says eye protection from the sun needs to happen year-round and should begin in childhood for lifelong eye health.

Ultraviolet light guide

Without the sun’s light and heat, none of us would be here. And while the sun makes life possible, its rays can be harmful if we’re not careful. The National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, says there are three kinds of UV light: UVA, UVB and UVC. We can’t see any of them with the naked eye.

The NEI says UV light more easily penetrates eye tissues than visible light, potentially increasing risk for eye problems. 

Let’s get behind the letter salad and see how UV light is defined:

UVA – Emits the least energy but can age your skin. Wrinkles and dark spots, sometimes called sun spots, are the best-known long-term effects, but it’s also linked to some skin cancers.

UVB – This type emits a little more energy than UVA light. It damages DNA and is the culprit behind sunburn and more UV-related cancers.

UVC – This UV has more energy than the other two but is mostly blocked by the Earth’s ozone layer. It also can come from sources such as welding torches and UV sanitizing light. It more easily penetrates the skin, potentially damaging skin cell DNA and increasing skin cancer risk. 

Potential peeper problems

Your eyes and eyesight could face some daunting issues if you’re not careful around the sun.

The NEI says conditions such as cataracts and cancers of the eyelid can result from long-term unprotected sun exposure. Some studies suggest it also increases the risk for age-related macular degeneration.

“When exposed to the sun’s reflection off sand, water, snow or ice, your eyes can actually become sun burned, causing temporary pain,” Dr. Saad says.

Other potential problems include a pinguecula – a protein and fat deposit in the white part of the eye that can cause irritation and, in rare cases, affect how tears cover the eye. Dr. Saad says with time, the growth can enlarge and affect your vision.

Another condition is a pterygium, also called surfer’s eye, a growth that extends from the white part of the eye to the clear tissue called the cornea, which covers the iris and pupil. 


What’s a sun lover to do? Wear sunglasses and a hat. The sunglasses should fit well and block light from coming in around the lenses. Your hat should have a broad, dark brim.

“Your skin isn’t the only part of you that needs protection from the sun this summer. Don’t forget about your eyes.” - Ophthalmologist Christine Saad, MD

Not all sunglasses are created equal. The first order of business is UV protection. Sunglass makers are required to list the UV protection on sunglasses. Nonprescription sunglasses are considered medical devices by the Food and Drug Administration. Look for lenses that provide 99% or 100% protection from UVA and UVB rays or that have a UV400 rating.

If you’re near reflective surfaces, such as water or snow, consider lenses that also are polarized to cut down on glare. Wearing sunglasses is a good idea year-round, though warmer weather is when we’re outside most. Consider wraparound sunglasses or goggles for intense light or when doing yardwork or other activity where debris could be an issue.

Lastly, Dr. Saad says never look directly at the sun, even in the absence of an eclipse, because the sun can damage your retina and affect vision.

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Ophthalmology specialists at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) have a passion for helping people see the world more clearly. From routine eye exams to intricate cataract surgery, we care for people with a wide range of routine and complex eye concerns, at three convenient locations.

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