There are three types of ultraviolent (UV) rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. Most harm comes from UVB rays, although UVA rays can also cause a number of issues.

While it is important to protect your whole body from the sun, many people overlook what the sun can do to their eyes. It can cause macular degeneration and cataracts. In the short term, UV rays can burn your eyes, causing irritation and even temporary vision problems. (Learn More)

The best way to protect your eyes is to keep the damage the sun can do in mind and make sure to wear sunglasses when outside. (Learn More)

Not all sunglasses have the traits needed to protect your eyes from UV rays. Some let in too much UV light. (Learn More)

An often overlooked danger of UV light is its ability to reflect. UV light can reflect off ice, water, snow, sand, and other surfaces with enough potency to still hurt your eyes.

As a general rule, if you stare at something and it seems bright or to hurt your eyes, treat it much like you would bright sunlight. Avoid looking at it, or wear sunglasses to stay safe. (Learn More)

UV Rays & Your Eyes

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation which, in high amounts, can damage our bodies in numerous ways. It is not emitted by every light source.

The most common source of UV rays, at least on earth, is our sun. These rays can also be produced by certain devices like welding torches or tanning beds. UV rays are what cause sunburn, and they can potentially cause even worse outcomes like cancer.

There are three types of UV rays, two of which are normally considered dangerous.

  • UVA rays: These rays have the least energy among UV rays, and they are mostly associated with long-term damage. They can cause the skin to age faster, leading to wrinkles, and they may also increase one’s risk of some cancers.
  • UVB rays: These rays have more energy to them than UVA rays, and they are what cause some of the worst effects of UV rays. They can damage the DNA in your skin directly, cause sunburn, and are a known cause of most skin cancers.
  • UVC rays: While UVC rays have the most energy of UV rays, this same property makes them highly reactive with the earth’s ozone layer. They generally don’t reach us, and they aren’t usually a risk factor for cancer.They can come from some manmade UV devices and could potentially cause a person damage if exposed to them that way, but this would be rare. When around such devices, be sure to follow proper safety procedures.

Just as these rays can damage the rest of the body, they also can put your eyes at risk. Solar radiation presents a host of dangers to the eyes, potentially causing cataracts or macular degeneration. In the short term, it can cause your eyes to essentially become sunburned (photokeratitis), which can be very irritating and make looking at any light very painful.

Some periodic exposure to the sun is healthy. Overexposure is the real risk, and there are practices you can adopt to protect yourself.

couple both wearing sunglasses

Avoiding UV Rays

To protect your eyes from UV rays, stay aware of the sun and its dangers, and wear sunglasses whenever your eyes are likely to be exposed to a significant amount of solar rays.

A good pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes does not necessarily have to be expensive. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a pair of sunglasses to keep your eyes safe.

  • Choose a large size. Sunglasses that are large, especially wraparound or oversized models, protect your eyes better than smaller pairs. The only light your eyes are safe from is that which actually passes through your glasses before hitting your eyes. The larger your pair, the less light can come in from different angles and hit your eyes directly.
  • Check ray protection potential. Quality sunglasses will usually notate with a sticker or tag if they block 100 percent of UV rays. When it comes to staying safe, only purchase sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays. This is not a unique feature of expensive sunglasses, and even reasonably priced pairs often block 100 percent of UV rays.
  • Know that color and shade are irrelevant. In terms of protection from UV rays, there is no particular color that will keep you safer. Likewise, the darkness of the lens does not actually matter. That said, some colors may increase contrast, which can be useful for people playing certain sports.
  • Be aware that standard polarized lenses don’t block UV rays. Polarized lenses are an option for many glasses that helps to reduce glare. Polarized lenses do not inherently stop UV rays, although the trait can sometimes be applied to lenses that also block UV rays.

Will Any Sunglasses Suffice?

Per the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s recommendations, just any old pair of sunglasses will not suffice. Some sunglasses are too small to properly protect the eyes, and many sunglasses let in far more damaging light than the user might realize.

Even if your pair only lets in some solar radiation, this can still lead to damage. Seeing as sunglasses that protect you properly can usually be acquired for an affordable price, it is always best to choose a better pair. Many safer pairs of sunglasses can be equally fashionable.

This problem can often affect children. Cheap “toy” sunglasses often do not have good protection against the sun. Couple this with the fact that many children may not fully realize when the sun is making their eyes feel strange, and it can cause problems.

If you are buying sunglasses for your child, opt for a pair that provides 100 percent UV protection.

Dangers of Reflective Surfaces

One often overlooked element of UV radiation is that it can reflect off some surfaces. UV rays can reflect off snow, ice, water, and sand with enough potency to still cause damage.

That list isn’t inclusive either. If you notice it is hurting your eyes to look at a surface, it probably is reflecting the sun into your eyes. Shiny glass, such as in urban environments, is another common example.

Many people associate sun damage with the summer, but you can still be hurt by solar radiation in the winter. The only element required for damage to occur is overexposure to sunlight; heat or warmth is not required.

That said, people tend to spend more time outdoors in the summer than in the winter. As a result, the risk of UV damage to the eyes is generally higher in summertime.

References

Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation. (July 2019). American Cancer Society.

UV Protection. American Optometric Association.

How to Choose the Best Sunglasses: Six Things to Consider. (April 2015). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Ultraviolet Keratitis. (April 2015). Cleveland Clinic.

Can Cheap Sunglasses Be Bad for Your Eyes? (August 2009). Time.