Protect Yourself from Ultraviolet Radiation for a Lifetime of Vision Health

When it comes to the human eye and the sun’s rays, it’s what we can’t see that matters most. The ultraviolet (UV) radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface – made up of two types of invisible rays, UVA and UVB – endangers an unprotected eye in ways that can lead to vision impairment. Short-term exposure can leave the eyes bloodshot, swollen or hyper-sensitive to light. Longer-term exposure can result in cataracts, macular degeneration, abnormal growths on the surface of the eye, and even cancer of the eye.

UV protection is especially important for children. Their eyes and vision can be threatened by factors in the world around them – ranging from sunlight and UV exposure to glare from the computer screen. UV protection is vital for children because their developing eyes are at a higher risk of damage from exposure to UV radiation. The crystalline lenses of children under age 10 have not matured sufficiently to become effective filters of UV radiation, which leaves the retinas unprotected from exposure. Studies also reveal that UV exposure in childhood results in a higher incidence of cataracts and other problems in adulthood.

Short-Term Problems

The effects of a sunny day at the beach or on the slopes may result in a variety of short-term problems such as bloodshot or swollen eyes, or hyper-sensitivity to light. The most extreme of these problems is photokeratitis, which skiers may identify as “snow blindness”. This condition was recently thrust into the consciousness of the public by Anderson Cooper and an experience he had after spending two hours on the open waters surrounding Portugal while covering a story for 60 Minutes. UV light reflecting off of the water had essentially burned the outer tissues of his eyeballs, and resulted in loss of vision for 36 hours. Open waters and a ski slope in winter aren’t the only places that UV rays can sharply increase the risk to unprotected eyes; the condition can also be a hazard in tanning booths and in certain occupations such as farmers, lifeguards, and welders.

Long-Term Problems

A cataract is a progressive clouding of the lens of the eye which impedes the passage of light. Most cataracts are related to ageing, but they can also develop after an injury, inflammation or disease, and can occasionally occur in young children. Worldwide approximately 18 million people are blind as a result of cataracts; of these, 5% is directly attributable to UV radiation exposure.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a condition affecting older people, and involves the loss of the person’s central field of vision. Globally, AMD ranks third as a cause of blindness after cataract and glaucoma. It is the primary cause in industrialized countries. The main risk factor is ageing, but other risk factors associated with AMD include tobacco use, ultraviolet rays, genetic tendencies, the degree of pigmentation (with light coloured eyes being at higher risk), and consumption of a non-balanced diet.

Pterygium is an abnormal but typically benign growth on the eye’s surface. Pterygium may extend over the centre of the cornea and thereby reduce vision. Even though it can be surgically removed, the outgrowth tends to recur. Because pterygium is linked to prolonged UV exposure, wind, and sand, it is completely preventable.

As with any other skin surface, cancer of the eye, eyelid and surrounding skin, while relatively rare, is also a risk.

Awareness of the Canadian Public

Despite the risks, recent research supported by Transitions Optical revealed that Canadians remain largely unaware of the damaging effects of UV light, and subsequently aren’t taking the appropriate steps to protect their vision. The research also suggests that most Canadians don’t understand that squinting is often an indication that their eyes aren’t being fully protected from UV rays and glare. Canadians are more concerned about the wrinkles and discomfort squinting may cause than the potential, long-term damage to their eyes.

Other Key Research Findings:

  • While more than nine out of 10 Canadian adults understand that extended sun exposure can lead to skin cancer, just 3 percent indicated that it can be harmful to the eyes.
  • More than six out of 10 Canadians did not know that UV exposure can lead to macular degeneration and cataracts, while nearly nine out of 10 were unaware that sun exposure can cause pterygium.
    • These low awareness levels among vision care consumers are contributing to insufficient action to protect their eyes from the sun.
  • While 84 percent say they apply sunscreen when planning to be outside for an extended period of time, only 12 percent said they wear sunglasses.
  • Just 12 percent of Canadians indicated that they are most concerned that squinting might be an indication of UV damage, while 25 percent were concerned about wrinkles, and 21 percent were concerned with physical discomfort associated with squinting.

These findings are alarming to healthcare providers and suggest that many Canadians would benefit from talking to their Licensed Optician about how to incorporate UV protection into their daily lives.

Risk Assessment and Protection

All of the following factors will affect an individual’s potential UV exposure and risk of eye damage:

  • Age – Unlike the mature lens of an adult eye, a child’s lens cannot yet adequately filter out UV rays. At the other end of the spectrum, decades of sun exposure make older eyes much more prone to visual problems and disease from cumulative UV radiation.
  • Eye Colour – Studies suggest that melanin in dark-coloured eyes acts as a protective pigment. Blue irises have less of this pigment and are therefore at greater risk.
  • Geography – Surroundings such as the beach, sand, water, and snow can affect exposure. Southern locations tend to receive more intense rays than northern ones, but elevation can also make a difference; the thinner atmosphere at high altitudes doesn’t absorb as much radiation.
  • Season and time of day – Regardless of geographic location, UV levels are highest during summer months, particularly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Talk to Your Licensed Optician about Simple Protection Tips for Life

  1. The color or darkness of the sunglasses is not necessarily an indicator of adequate defense. The one critical element is the degree of UVA and UVB protection. A decal on the sunglasses that indicates “100% UVA-UVB protection” or similar is helpful, but asking your Licensed Optician to check the eyewear’s protection level is the best way to know for sure.
  2. Buy from a reputable retailer. A vision care professional will be familiar with frame and lens safety criteria. “Dime store sunglasses” typically do not have adequate UV protection, and may actually increase eye damage; worse than no sunglasses at all! This is because the dark lens allows the iris of the eye to open up, allowing even more UV rays to penetrate.
  3. Wraparound sunglasses are the best, protecting against UV rays entering from the side, as well as from wind.

Ultimately, the solution is to protect the eyes from exposure early in life and to remain diligent in that protection year-round, for a lifetime. Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays are the best defense against UV damage. A Licensed Optician can check the protection level on your current pair of sunglasses – visit one today!

Credits: Transitions Optical and The World Health Organization for statistics and key research findings.