Here comes the sun…Protect your eyes!

bright sun thinkstock 83404658After a long cold winter, we’re all happy to see and feel the warmth of the sun.  It makes us look and feel healthy, and we actually need some sun exposure to produce vitamin D, which helps in the absorption of calcium for healthy bones. Most of us are aware that the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause serious damage to the skin that can lead to melanoma and other skin cancers. But we need to remember that the sun can be equally damaging to our eyes, causing cataracts and other eye diseases. So when you think about protection from the sun, remember that you also need to safeguard your eyes.

There are three kinds of UV rays: UVA, UVB and UVC. Only the first two reach the earth’s surface and the UVB rays cause greater risk than UVA, but both can cause serious injury.

Too much sun exposure can cause the growth of cataracts and pterygia, fleshy growths on the whites of the eyes that are also known as “surfers eye.” Excessive UV can also increase the risk of cancerous tumors on the surface and inside the eyes, and can result in sunburn to the eye itself. It can also increase the risk of developing macular degeneration.

The best way to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays is to limit sun exposure, but there are a number of other ways you can minimize the sun’s dangerous rays:

  • Purchase protective eye wear for you and your children. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but be sure they have labels saying they block 99-100 percent of UV rays or they say “UV400.” Gray-tinted lenses affect color the least; amber increases contrast. Polarized lenses reduce glare and are good for use on the water, but may dim the images from certain liquid crystal displays. Larger, wraparound frames are best for preventing sun damage to the sides and whites of the eyes.
  • Remember that snow, water and sand are great reflectors of UV rays, so you need to wear your sunglasses even under the beach umbrella. A wide-brimmed hat provides additional protection.
  • Wear your sunglasses whenever you go outside – even on overcast days.
  • Your everyday eye glasses should also have a coating that absorbs UV rays.
  • Do not use tanning beds. They use ultraviolet lights and can cause eye damage. If you want to get a tan, use a self-tanning product, but use it with sunscreen.
  • Use a water-proof, broad-spectrum (this means it protects against UVA and UBA rays) with SPF of at least 20-30 and apply very carefully around the eyes.
  • Never look at the sun – especially during an eclipse!

Finally, you should remember that your eyes need protection all year round – not just during the lazy, hazy, sunny days of summer!

David B. Glasser, M.D., is an ophthalmologist in private practice with Patapsco Eye MDs and is a member of the Howard County General Hospital Department of Surgery.