For many years, the sun’s damaging effects on the skin have been common knowledge.  But much more recently, scientists have linked sun damage to major eye ailments and diseases such as eyelid cancers and cataracts. A recent discovery, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, suggests that ultraviolet (UV) rays may also play a major role in macular degeneration, one of the main causes of vision loss.

Sunglasses are the major solution to problems caused by overexposure to the sun’s UV rays. Credit: Allie Hentschell.

The sun gives off two different types of rays known as UVA and UVB, which are most detrimental to the eyes and the skin surrounding the eyes. While the Earth’s ozone filters out many of the UVB rays, some are still able to reach the Earth causing major damage to the human body. UVA rays are the longest of the UV rays given off by the sun, measuring from 320–300 nm, while the UVB rays range from 290–320 nm. UVA rays are not as easily filtered by the atmosphere and therefore are a major cause of various types of skin cancers

While not often heard about, 5 to 10% of all skin cancers are in fact cancers of the eyelid; a disease that includes different types of skin cancers—basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, with cell carcinomas making up the majority of the eyelid cancers. Eyelid cancer affects 16.9 men and 12.4 women per 100,000 people in the U.S. each year alone. Even more alarming, basal cell carcinoma, while not known to spread in other forms of skin cancers, often spreads to the eye in cases of eyelid cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. 

Sun exposure has also been linked to cataracts, or a progressive clouding and yellowing of the eye lens. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 10% of cataract cases are directly attributable to UVB ray exposure. In other words, out of the 10 million cataracts surgeries performed each year, about 100,000 of those were on patients who suffered from cataracts as a result of UV rays.   

A 2005 study, performed at the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School, with 6448 participants found that people exposed to more than five hours a day were at higher risk of developing macular degeneration.  The use of hats and sunglasses during half of that time period resulted in a decreased risk of macular degeneration. While not proven to cause macular degeneration, UV rays have been pointed to as one of the likely cause.

According to Mayo Clinic, macular degeneration, one of the major causes of vision loss, is a condition in which part of the retina known as the macula, or the region of sharpest vision, is damaged over time.

The solution to these sun problems is very simple, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation (GRF). Sunglasses are the most effective way of preventing the eyes from harmful UV rays.  Most ophthalmologists and optometrists believe that one should wear sunglasses whenever they are out in the sun long enough to receive a sunburn. 

“Sunglasses have shown to be a critical tool in protecting both the eye and the delicate areas around the eye that cause a variety of eye ailments and that can lead to a worsening or elimination of vision altogether, as in the case of macular degeneration,” stated Dr. Stephen E. Haring, OD, an optometrist at West County Eyecare in Missouri.

While certain glasses may be more powerful than others, the GRF asserts that blocking UV rays is not reliant on the price or the tint of the glasses. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency states that it is not the coloring of the lenses, but the UV absorbing properties of the glass lenses that provide the protection to the eyes.   

The most important factor to deciding on the proper pair of sunglasses is “choos[ing] sunglasses that are labeled as blocking 99–100 % of UV rays,” according to Haring. 

To determine the amount of light blocked by the pair of glasses, the GRF suggests trying on the pair to see if the pupils are visible.  If they are, the lenses are too light and do not block the proper amount of sunlight. Haring states that “it is best to look for glasses that offer 100% UV protection, completely cover the eye, and offer side protection if possible.”

“I wear them sunny or cloudy because I have seen the effects firsthand through the many family members I have with cataracts, including my sister and father,” says Carolyn Hentschell, an avid sunglasses wearer. Lauren, a high school junior, also adamantly wears sunglasses because, “when I don’t wear them my eyes feel irritated and I begin to get a headache. They are a simple solution to what could be a big health problem.”

Allie Hentschell

See also Sunscreen-Cancer Preventer of Promoter?, Serious Risks with Indoor Tanning


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