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Everyone has heard the truth about the sun’s damaging effects on our skin – burning, wrinkling, skin cancer, and premature aging. What most people don’t know or forget is that the sun’s UV rays can be just as harsh or more damaging to our eyes!
UV rays hit a person’s forehead, eyelids, nose, and upper cheeks more than any other part of the body. Unless a person is wearing a hat or sunglasses all the time, these areas are constantly exposed and often have skin changes throughout life. One role of an Optometrist is to inspect these tissues for signs of skin cancer. More importantly, we evaluate the eye itself. The damage caused to the skin by UV is literally just scratching the surface. Let’s talk about the damage inside the eye.
The lens of the eye is an important component that focuses light, helps us accommodate or adjust our focus to different ranges, and it protects the back of the eye from UV light. The lens actually absorbs a lot of the UV light that enters the eye and subsequently often gets the most damage. UV light damages cells of the lens and creates ions called free radicals. This damage causes the lens of the eye to yellow or opacify…. a cataract. To some degree, everyone on the planet has a mild cataract after a certain age thanks in large part to UV rays.
While the lens does its part, some of the UV still penetrates deep into the eye and damages the cells of the retina. The retina is the neural tissue that is responsible for vision. The damage to retina leads to macular degeneration.
There can be a catch 22 in some people. They may be older and have very little evidence of cataracts but have more retinal damage. Some folks are younger and have more cataracts and less retinal damage. Some folks have cataract surgery and see wonderfully again, but forget that the implant was not as good as the factory model and neglect UV protection and subsequently develop more retinal damage.
Overall, the moral of the story is to know the importance of UV protection. About 80% of UV damage occurs to the skin before the age of 14. I’m sure the eyes are no different. While 79% of people know that the sun causes skin cancer, only 6% know it can harm the eyes. Sadly, children are two times more likely to wear sunscreen than they are sunglasses to protect from the sun’s harmful radiation. And it is in youth that the protection is most important!
So what options do you have to prevent UV damage to your eyes? At all ages…..Wear sunglasses with at least 99% UV blockage. I highly recommend polarized lenses because not only do they block UV, but they eliminate glare from reflective surfaces. Another option is to choose Transitions brand lenses, which change into sunglasses when activated by UV light and have 100% UV blockage. Not only do Transitions protect the eyes, but they also make you aware of how much UV you are in day in and day out. Or, you can ask for clear UV protection in your lenses…remember that UV protection does not mean that it has to be darkened- sunscreen is clear, for example. Some types of contact lenses, like Acuvue, offer clear UV protection blockage. Wear hats. And finally, be sure you are taking your antioxidants. I recommend at least 1,000mg of vitamin C daily. Vitamin C is a water soluble, readily available, safe supplement. It helps break up free radicals, reduce cellular damage, and get the garbage out of the body.