Sunglasses are much more than a fashion statement. The earliest record of eyewear used to protect the eyes from the sun dates back to prehistoric Inuit culture, most likely to ward off the glare from the snow and resultant snow blindness. Based on uncovered artifacts, these goggles were made of walrus ivory with narrow slits for the eyes. Soot mixed with oil was rubbed onto the goggles to further cut down the reflected sun glare off the snow.
Fast-forward to the year 2021 where we know a lot more about the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation on the eyes and are manufacturing sunglasses out of materials more sophisticated than walrus tusks and soot.
The Link Between Ultraviolet Radiation and Eye Disease
UV radiation has been named a contributing factor to various eye conditions; some of these are easily corrected while others can result in permanent vision loss. Ultraviolet radiation is produced by the sun but is not part of the visible spectrum – we can’t see UV light like we might see a red laser beam, but the cells of our bodies are still being affected by this short wavelength energy.
The damage to our cells from UV exposure is cumulative over time, meaning its effects are dependent on the intensity of the radiation and the duration of exposure. The longer your eyes are exposed to strong UV radiation, the risk of experiencing a UV-related eye disease increases:
- Cataracts: While most people will develop cataracts over time simply due to age, UV exposure to the eyes can accelerate cataract formation. Populations exposed to high degrees of UV, such as those living close to the equator or outdoor workers, tend to have a higher risk of early cataract. The only way to fix a cataract is through surgery, which will restore the vision in most cases
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD): Another age-related eye disease, one of the underlying mechanisms of AMD is thought to be UV damage to the cells of the retina. AMD is a disease of the macular area in the retina, which is crucial for our fine detailed central vision. There is currently no known cure for AMD
- Pingueculae and pterygia (surfer’s eye): These are benign growths on the surface of the eye. A pinguecula looks like a gelatinous whitish-yellowish bump on the whites of the eye while a pterygium is a triangle-shaped overgrowth of tissue from the whites of the eye over the transparent cornea. Both pingueculae and pterygia can be surgically removed though can regrow if the sun exposure continues
- Eyelid and eye cancers: Just like UV radiation can cause cancer of the skin, it can cause cancer of the tissues around the eye. Melanomas, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas may occur on the eyeball itself or on the surrounding eyelids. Some of these eye cancers, if not caught quickly, can metastasize and even be fatal
- Photokeratitis: Photokeratitis is a painful condition that may be thought of as sunburn of the eye. It can be caused by reflections from water or snow, staring at the sun, or from an artificial source, such as a welding arc. Symptoms include redness, pain, blurry vision, and a watery eye
The Importance of the Right Sunglasses
Hopefully, this list of UV-related eye diseases was enough to convince you of the importance of sunglasses. If not – think about all the wrinkles you’d be developing at the corners of your unprotected eyes from squinting against the sun.
When it comes to choosing a good pair of sunglasses, it’s important to look beyond the brand name emblazoned along the sides. Remember, before sunglasses were a fashion accessory, they were protecting prehistoric Inuits’ eyes from snow blindness.
The Two Most Important Factors to Consider When Selecting Your Next Pair of Sunglasses
- Ensure they are labeled as blocking 100% of UV radiation. This may be written as something along the lines of “100% protection from UVA/UVB” or “100% UV400 protection.” Wearing sunglasses that don’t protect the eyes from the UV of the sun is useless
- Size and shape are more than just aesthetic considerations. The more physical coverage the frame and lenses provide over your eyes and face, the better the UV protection. Larger frames or wraparound glasses are preferred
Some people mistake certain features of the sunglasses to mean better UV protection such as polarization, color of the lenses, or darkness of the tint. This is untrue, as the UV blocking properties are due to the material of the lens or its coatings. However, these features may have some bearing on your choice of sunglasses.
- Polarization is great for reducing glare, making certain activities more comfortable. People who do a lot of driving, watersports, or snow sports may benefit from polarized sunglasses (just make sure that they are still marked as providing 100% UV protection), as the polarization cuts down uncomfortable reflections from roads, shiny cars, snow and ice, and water
- A darker tinted lens is not necessarily indicative of its level of UV protection. However, similar to polarization, it can reduce the amount of glare passing through the lens to your eyes, which can make particularly sunny days more comfortable on your vision
- Colored lenses, in addition to making you look like Bono from the band U2, can enhance your vision in various lighting conditions. Brown, amber, and rose-colored lenses are good for overcast, low contrast conditions, while green lenses are known to help with depth perception while maintaining color accuracy. Sportspeople will often use colored lenses to their advantage
A good pair of sunglasses doesn’t need to be expensive or have a luxury brand logo on the side to do its job; just keep in mind that they have to provide 100% UVA/UVB protection and cover as much of your eyes and face as possible. In addition to a well-chosen pair of sunglasses, a hat and not staring into the sun will also go a long way in protecting your eyes from excessive UV damage.
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