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Baby with sunglassesHelen Keller once wrote that “sight must be the most delightful of all senses”. Most of us appreciate good vision but may not always do enough to protect our eyes from overexposure to dangerous ultraviolet radiation (UVR). This overexposure may result in both short and long-tem eye problems. Because children are at increased risk for eye damage secondary to increased exposure related to reflected UV light, they must take extra precautions to ensure eye health.

The iris is the pigmented circular band surrounding the pupil. It is a muscle that controls the diameter and size of the pupil and thus the amount of light reaching the retina. Melanocytes are the cells in the eye that are genetically programmed to produce eye color.  Light colored eyes are associated with greater sensitivity of the skin to UVR, however, they are not an indicator of increased risk for overexposure to the inner eye. It is important to remember that overexposure to UV radiation is problematic for everyone—regardless of eye color.

Severe short-term overexposure to UV radiation can cause photokeratitis, a “sunburn” of the eye. The symptoms include red eyes, excessive tearing, gritty feeling in the eye, and sensitivity to light. Symptoms usually last a few days and damage is rarely permanent but can certainly be uncomfortable in the short term.

Long-term exposure to UV radiation may contribute to cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens. Exposure is based on a number of factors including environmental conditions (e.g., UV Index or intensity, altitude, reflected light, cloud cover) and personal factors such as the extent and nature of our outdoor activities.

The lens of our eye is primarily made up of water and proteins. Overexposure to UV radiation can contribute to the lens drying out and becoming cloudy. The lens focuses light onto the back of the eye or retina and it must be clear in order to work properly. More than 3 million cataract surgeries are performed each year in the United States.

Some contact lenses contain UV-absorbing filters that help protect against transmission of harmful UV radiation to the cornea and into the eye. However, manufacturers warn that these lenses are not substitutes for sunglasses because they do not completely cover the eye and surrounding area. Research has not yet demonstrated that wearing UV-blocking contact lenses reduces the risk of developing cataracts or other eye disorders. Therefore, UV-absorbing eyewear continues to be the best method of eye protection. 

Although there are mandatory UV rating systems for sunscreen (SPF or Sun Protection Factor) and clothing (UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor), there is no mandatory system for sunglasses. Therefore, it is imperative that you look for labels that denote UV protection. The American Optometric Association (AOA) recommends wearing quality sunglasses that absorb ultraviolet light up to 400nm. This translates to blocking out 99% of UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) rays. AOA also recommends using wrap around sunglasses while in bright sunlight and choosing polycarbonate materials that are impact resistant.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that individuals wear sunglasses daily to protect the eye from the long-term effects of UV radiation. Children’s Melanoma Prevention Foundation (CMPF) recommends wearing a wide brimmed hat along with quality sunglasses to protect the inner and outer eye from sun damage. Sunscreen sticks are great products for use around the outer eye. These stick balms may be applied to the eyelids and do not run into the eye when sweating.

Children should be taught to avoid “unprotected” exposure to UV light and to wear sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen daily. Quality sunglasses are an essential piece of gear for all young boaters to promote eye health. Healthy eyes are so important to our good vision and quality of life that they should be protected at all costs.

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