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The Importance of Sunglasses

July 28, 2020 | By Dr. Kalah Burchfield

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It’s easy to remember to grab a pair of sunglasses when you’re headed to the beach or the lake for a day, but it’s just as important to grab them anytime you’re headed outside, even if it’s just for a quick walk or it seems to be overcast. You always want to protect those eyes from the sun’s rays and the best way to do that is with a pair of sunglasses. Right now - in the midst of summer - is a good time to check out your sunglasses and make sure you’re wearing a pair that’s providing protection to your eyes by blocking ultraviolet radiation.

So, what is ultraviolet radiation?

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation refers to a part of the light spectrum that is non-visible to the human eye. We can feel it sometimes, but we can’t see it. Just like UV radiation can be damaging to other parts of the body - causing wrinkles, pigmentation changes, and skin cancers - it can be damaging to the eyes as well. UV light consists of three parts: UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C. UV-C is the most damaging. But luckily for us, it is absorbed by the atmosphere! So we should be most  concerned with protecting ourselves from UV-A and UV-B.

What type of sunglasses should I wear?

When you go to grab a new pair of shades for summer, what should you be looking for? It can be easy to pick a frame based on shape, style, or color, but it’s important to look a little closer at what level of protection the lenses actually offer. Make sure your sunglasses offer 100% protection against UV-A and UV-B, or 100% protection against UV 400, which covers UV-A and UV-B. 

Plus, when it comes to sunglasses: the bigger, the better! A larger frame covers your eyes completely and offers more protection for the eyelids and the skin surrounding the eyes. It’s also a good choice to pick a frame with a wraparound style to help limit exposure from the sides if you tend to do a lot of outdoor activities.

When should I wear sunglasses?

Anytime you’re outside! Have you ever been shocked by a sunburn that you got after being outside on an overcast day? Maybe you didn’t even think to put on sunblock because you didn’t realize you were getting that much sun. Since UV radiation is not entirely blocked by clouds, it’s still present when the forecast calls for a gray day. 

Just like you wear sunscreen to protect your skin, wear sunglasses to protect your eyes! Throwing on a hat with a wide brim also adds another layer of protection for your eyes - and don’t forget to wear sunglasses even when you’re in the shade. It’s possible to receive UV radiation indirectly as it is reflected off light-colored surfaces, even if you’re not directly in the sun.

Should babies and children wear sunglasses?

Yes and yes! Research shows their young eyes are more susceptible to UV damage than older adults and since UV damage is cumulative, it is extremely important to start young. We know this may be easier said than done. If it’s a struggle for your little ones to wear sunglasses, the next best thing is to make sure they have a wide brim hat to limit exposure and stay in the shade as much as possible. But both sunglasses and a hat are even better!

What are my sunglasses options when I already have to wear glasses?

When you wear contact lenses, it’s easy to throw on your sunglasses when you head outside. But what if you’re wearing glasses? One solution is prescription sunglasses. It is easy to have sunglass lenses made with your specific prescription so that when you need that UV protection, you just switch out your glasses. But if having a completely separate pair doesn’t interest you, some frame styles also offer clip-on sunglasses that attach directly to your frame. So instead of switching out glasses, you just pop the clip-on on and off as needed. Clip-ons are back in style, so keep an eye out for this convenient option when picking out a new pair of frames!

Another good option is photochromic lenses, best known through the popular brand name Transitions. Photochromic lenses undergo chemical changes when exposed to UV radiation that darken the color of the lenses. They come in different colors, and the color change process reverses when you are no longer exposed to UV. These can be a great option if you prefer to only carry around one pair of glasses.

What are polarized sunglasses and do I need those?

Polarized lenses are a popular option for sunglasses and work like a filter to reduce glare. Polarization can be really helpful in limiting distracting glare, especially for certain activities like driving or fishing by reducing the glare coming off the road or the water. However, polarized lenses do not necessarily offer any UV protection - make sure to look for lenses that have both! 

What are some potential ocular complications from UV exposure?

UV light has been linked to problems on the surface of the eye and within the eye. You’ve probably heard of cataracts, which are a possible complication from UV exposure. Inside the eye is a natural lens and a cataract develops when that lens loses its clarity. UV has contributed to their growth and cataracts can start to affect vision at a certain density.

A pinguecula and a pterygium are two changes to the front of the eyes that can result from UV exposure. They are both growths on the conjunctiva, which is a lining over the white part of the eyes. A pinguecula is usually yellow in color with a triangular shape. A pterygium is more of a flesh color and can grow onto another structure of the eye known as the cornea, which has the potential to affect vision.

It’s even possible to develop UV keratitis which is essentially a sunburn on the front of the eye’s surface. This can occur from UV radiation being reflected off water or snow. So if you’re skiing on the top of a snow-covered mountain in the middle of winter, you still need to remember your UV protection.

In summary, remember to protect your eyes and grab those sunglasses anytime you head outside. If you have a pair of sunglasses and you’re not sure what level of UV protection they have, contact your local eye care provider or visit a 2020 On-site clinic. Many optometrists have a tool that can measure the amount of UV radiation that is blocked by your lenses so you can make sure you have the appropriate protection you need.

And if you need new sunglasses to keep your eyes protected this season, we’ve got you covered. Head over to our online store to check out our capsule collection of sunglasses, or come see us in person to pick out a pair! 

About Dr. Kalah Burchfield

Dr. Burchfield is originally from east Tennessee. She graduated with a B.S. from Tennessee Tech University and a Doctorate from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis. She began her career in a private practice in Tennessee before relocating to the Boston area. Dr. Burchfield enjoys spending free time with her energetic puppy and traveling.

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