By Dr. Michael Nelson,
President, Canadian Association of Optometrists
As we see the hope of warmer weather after coming out of a Canadian winter, I think we’d all agree with Sheryl Crow’s encouragement to soak up the sun, but my professional experience demands that I add the caveat “carefully” to that suggestion.
While most people recognize the importance of sunscreen in terms of protecting their skin from ultraviolet (UV) light that results in burns or even cancer, many are likely unaware of the serious eye damage that results from UV overexposure.
What is UV light?
A type of electromagnetic radiation that we mostly experience from sunlight. It is linked to a variety of eye problems, including cataracts, degeneration of the cornea and abnormal growths on the eye’s surface. UV damage to the eyes is cumulative and usually irreversible.
Here’s a more jarring fact from the World Health Organization: an estimated 80 per cent of lifetime exposure to UV rays occurs before age 18.1
Why? Well, despite the myopia epidemic, kids still spend more time outdoors than the average adult and they receive approximately three times the annual adult dose of UV. They also have larger pupils with clearer lenses, and neither they (nor their parents!) take the same precaution to protect their eyes, like wearing sunglasses or hats, as they do for their skin (sunscreen).
UV exposure also isn’t just a summertime problem. Regardless of the season, UV exposure is nearly the same across all four seasons. And if you thought that clouds might have a role to play in limiting UV rays, think again – 90 per cent of UV rays penetrate right through them. They also reflect off surfaces like water, snow, concrete, sand and glass. Kind of recalls Corey Hart’s advice to wear sunglasses at night!
Not to worry though; there really are ways to safely soak up the sun, at least from your eyes’ perspective, whether it’s summer or winter. Sunglasses provide an easy way to enjoy being outside safely and I would strongly encourage people to wear them all year round.
But caveat emptor – not all sunglasses are created equal and you get what you pay for. Cool frames are one thing; lenses that protect your eyes are another. Don’t be fooled by glasses that are labelled “UV protection” unless that protection is 100 per cent UV-A and UV-B radiation, and make sure the colours on both lens match and are free of any imperfections or distortions.
Also, don’t forget about your contact lenses, as many contact lenses are now available with some level of UV protection. Although UV protection in contact lenses do not reach the level provided by sunglasses, they can be valuable in times when you are not wearing your shades.
And back to children just for a moment. Given what we know about their exposure to UV, remember to take steps to help reduce potential vision problems in their future. Consider sunglasses for them too and take the added precaution of a wide-brimmed hat or baseball cap.
For babies younger than six months of age, use a canopy or umbrella as a sunshield.
So, go ahead – soak up that sun. Just make sure your shades are on when you do!
1 Protecting children from ultraviolet radiation, World Health Organization, December 2009.