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John Whyte, M.D., MPH

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Don't Forget About Protecting Your Eyes When You Put on Sunscreen

Posted: 07/19/2012 7:37 am

If you're wearing sunglasses without sufficient ultraviolet (UV) protection, throw them out. Just in time to celebrate Ultraviolet (UV) Awareness Month -- I know, who knew?! Trading in your current specs for ones that offer protection against the sun's harmful UV rays can go a long way in terms of benefiting your eye health and even preventing blindness.

Too often we neglect to wear sunglasses that protect us from the harmful rays of the sun. Either we buy a pair for a few dollars that offer little protection or we don't wear any at all because we can't find them. I'm sure you've lost a handful of sunglasses over the years! (Check the car -- that's usually where they are!) We all do. But we're doing our eyes a disservice by failing to protect them with the proper sunglasses.

Part of the problem is that most people don't think about wearing sunglasses for health reasons -- they are more likely to think of it as a fashion statement. Does that sound familiar? If so, you're not alone. According to a survey conducted earlier this year by The Vision Council, less than 1 in 6 people said they wore sunglasses for a health reason. Twenty percent of respondents didn't even think they were at risk from sun exposure if they didn't wear sunglasses. But they are!

If you're one of those people that prefer to squint in the sun, maybe you shouldn't be blamed since while a lot of hype surrounds UV effects on skin, there doesn't seem to be as much emphasis out there about eye protection when it comes to fighting UV rays. For instance, you probably know what UV can do to skin (e.g., make it age, wrinkle prematurely, even place you at increased risk for skin cancer). This awareness has hopefully prompted you to go out there and slather on appropriate SPF-marked sunscreens and beauty products. Did you know, however, that increased UV exposure can injure your eyes, ranging from short-term symptoms (e.g., eye irritation, blurriness, pain) to long-term damage (e.g., macula degeneration, cataracts, cancer -- all of which can lead to long-term vision loss). And despite advances in science, it's hard to restore vision once it's lost.

So what type of sunglasses do you need? You need glasses with lenses that offer 99 to 100 percent protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Look for a pair that specifically states that. Bigger is [finally!] better -- at least when it comes to sunglasses. People who are into more wraparound lenses may derive more protection than smaller lenses. Those Jackie-O saucer-type specs also are not just a fashion statement but a health statement as well nowadays! Also, try not to be distracted at some other features that are available but that don't really weigh in much as far as offering you any additional UV protection. For instance, polarized or photochromic lenses sound fancy, but mainly they reduce glare; the problem is they may or may not protect against UV light, which is the goal! And remember Baywatch and seeing all the lifeguards wearing sunglasses that had lenses coated with a mirror-type layer? These certainly looked cool, and they do block visible light but don't usually block UV light. That's why if the sunglasses don't say they block UVA and UVB, don't buy them.

Believe it or not, there are even contact lenses that offer UV protection. Though you may be tempted to rely solely on these -- without wearing sunglasses -- don't do it. Contacts don't cover the entire surface area of your eye and therefore are inadequate as protection for your eyes. A complementary alternative may be to wear both contacts and sunglasses with UV protection. Or you can wear prescription sunglasses -- that way you can see the beach and have protection at the same time.

Remember, just as your skin gets damaged in the sun without protection, so too can your eyes. So put on a proper pair of glasses, and enjoy the summer!

For more by John Whyte, M.D., MPH, click here.

For more on eye health, click here.

 
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