The importance of wearing sunglasses

Health Advisor
Ask Felicity

28 June 2016

Sunglasses provide vital UV protection

By now, most people should be aware of the dangers of exposing the skin to too much sunlight, and the majority of us make an effort to wear suncream on sunny days in order to protect our skin from wrinkles, premature ageing and skin cancer.

However, a lot of people forget that the same harmful rays from the sun can also damage our eyes and lead to conditions such as cataracts, macular degeneration and eye strain. This is why wearing sunglasses on sunny days is just as important as wearing sun cream.

Why does the sun damage eyes?

The sun’s rays contain ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and it is this that causes damage to skin and eyes. There are two kinds: UVA and UVB. UVA rays penetrate deep into the body’s tissues, causing wrinkling, sagging and aging of the skin. UVB rays are more harmful and cause damage to the upper layers of skin, resulting in sunburn and contributing to the development of skin cancer.

Both of these rays can also cause damage to a number of parts of the eyes, including:

  • The white of your eye, which can cause a thickening of the conjunctiva (the thin ‘skin’ covering the white of the eye)
  • The retina which sits at the back of the eyeand absorbs light to create pictures. If this is damaged it can cause macular degeneration
  • The lens, which can lead to the development of cataracts
  • The iris – the coloured part of the eye – which is more easily damaged if you have blue eyes
  • The cornea which protects the front of the eye. This can become sunburned which is very painful and can cause temporary blindness. Repeated exposure of this kind can also lead to cataracts
  • The eyelids – the skin here is one of thinnest areas of skin on the body, so can easily become burnt and damaged.

As well as the physical damage done by the sun, the exposure to bright light can cause eye strain. This is because the eyes are overworked by constantly squinting against the sun, particularly when driving or reading a book outdoors. This can cause headaches, sore eyes and dry eyes, and make it difficult to concentrate.

So when should I wear sunglasses?

You should wear sunglasses on sunny days, during the majority of the day – most health advisors recommend between 10am and 4pm as this is when the sun’s rays are strongest and the eyes most vulnerable to damage. The closer you live to the equator, the stronger the sun’s rays will be, so the more often you will need to wear them.

You should also be particularly careful to wear sunglasses while taking part in snowsports, because the sun reflects off the snow, causing significantly higher damage than the sun’s rays alone – resulting in what is commonly known as ‘snowblindness’. If you wear goggles to ski or snowboard, make sure that these provide UVA and UVB protection. This also applies to water, so for those who surf or sail, sunglasses are vital.

It is often advisable to refrain from wearing sunglasses in the morning or evening when the sun’s rays are weaker. This is because, like the skin, the eyes need a certain level of natural sunlight to promote healthy functioning. In particular, sunlight through the eyes stimulates the hypothalamus which regulates our biological clock and our hormones, keeping us healthy, energetic and happy. Overuse of sunglasses can also sometimes cause the eyes to become extra sensitive to light, even if it isn’t that bright.

Sunglasses and children

While many adults wear sunglasses – often more as a fashion accessory than for health – many forget to ensure that their children’s eyes are also protected. It is thought that by the age of 18, children will have absorbed around 60-80% of their lifetime exposure to UV rays . Their still-developing eyes are also more vulnerable to damage, so it is really important that you ensure your children wear sunglasses, even as babies.

Babies should really be kept out of strong direct sunlight as much as possible. Make sure they wear a sunhat or visor as this will also help reduce the amount of sun reaching their face – which is particularly important if your little one keeps pulling their sunglasses off!

What kind of sunglasses should I buy?

When buying sunglasses, you should always check the label to make sure they either confirm that they provide 99-100% UV absorption (simply saying ‘absorbs UV’ is not enough), or that they state ‘UV 400’ on the label. They should also bear the CE logo or kitemark logo, to show that they have been approved for sale in the EU.

This is important as it ensures that your sunglasses are of sufficient quality to provide the protection you need. Wearing sunglasses that do not provide protection against UV rays is actually more damaging than not wearing any sunglasses at all. This is because the darkened lenses inhibit the eyes’ natural protective function. In bright light the pupils automatically narrow to prevent too much light entering the eyes, which also restricts UV absorption – but when wearing darkened glasses the pupils instead widen, so if your sunglasses aren’t providing protection against UV rays, your eyes will end up absorbing significantly more than if you didn’t wear sunglasses at all.

If you are buying sunglasses for surfing or snowsports, make sure that they wrap and curve around the eyes, in particular below the eyes as much of the reflected rays will come from below you.

For driving, make sure your sunglasses don’t restrict your peripheral vision as this can be dangerous.

It is important to remember that price is not always an indication of quality. Sunglasses could cost hundreds of pounds but if they don’t specify that they provide 99-100% absorption or UV 400, then there is no guarantee that they will provide sufficient protection. Likewise, sunglasses could cost only a few pounds but if they specify that they provide 99-100% absorption or UV 400, then they will provide all the protection you need (and if they don’t they are breaking all kinds of advertising regulations and standards regulations).

In addition, the darkness or colour of the lens does not indicate the level of protection – the chemical applied to lenses to absorb UV rays is actually clear, so lenses are really only darkened for comfort against bright light.

If you want to check the UV protection provided by a pair of sunglasses, most opticians will be able to quickly check for you, so pop in and ask. You can also get a layer of UV protection added to your sunglasses if they aren’t performing as well as they should.

What else can I do to protect my eyes?

You can further protect your eyes by wearing a cap or wide brimmed hat, as this restricts the amount of light that reaches your eyes in the first place. This only reduces UV exposure by 50%, so it is important you still wear sunglasses.

You should make sure that you are eating the right foods to promote healthy eyes and vision. For example, lutein and zeaxanthin are contained in a number of foods including spinach and kale, and they provide what we could term ‘natural sunglasses’ – they help protect against harmful UV rays and blue light. 

Our Vision Complex contains both lutein and zeaxanthin, alongside zinc and beta-carotene. This helps promote healthy vision and healthy eyes, and aids the absorption of vitamin A and fatty acids which are also essential to eye health.

If your eyes feel dry and irritated after a day in the sun, A.Vogel Eye Drops can help. These drops contain the herb Euphrasia which has been used since the 14th century to treat eye problems. They are great for tired, dry and irritated eyes, and can be used whilst wearing contact lenses.

Vision Complex – for healthy eyes

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Contains tagetes and blackcurrant extracts, rich in lutein, beta-carotene & zeaxanthin.
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