When the topic of sun damage comes up, most people will begin the conversation by talking about skin and melanomas, which you can never be too careful about. After all, about 100,000 people get diagnosed with invasive melanoma of the skin each year in the US. However, the ultraviolet rays coming from the sun also put your eyesight at significant risk and more awareness needs to be raised.
The National Institutes of Health funded a 2014 study that discovered UV radiation can cause damage to the lenses in your eyes. With enough time and exposure, this UV damage can cause impairment of a person’s eyesight and increase the incidence of cataracts that can lead to impairment and blindness over time.
“Without adequate protection, UV radiation, which is invisible to the naked eye, passes through and affects sensitive structures inside,” according to Dr. Rebecca Taylor, an ophthalmologist working out of Nashville who is also a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The retina, which is located at the back of your eyes, has an incredibly delicate area located in the center called the macula. “The macula is the bull’s eye of the retina if the retina was a target right behind the pupil,” she adds. “Light entering the eye hits the macula squarely like a laser.”
Unfortunately, there is further evidence that damage from ultraviolet radiation increases the chance of macular degeneration, which is perhaps the biggest cause of blindness related to age. Eye cancer has also been linked to excessive sun exposure, besides a common and short-term injury of the eye known as “welder’s burn” or photokeratitis, which is like a sunburn of the eyes. Welder’s burn can cause you to have large spots in your eyes or even blindness, but these symptoms are only temporary in the majority of cases and cause no lasting damage.
Furthermore, damage from UV light is different depending on the setting and time of day you are exposed to the sun. Windshields, water, and snow tend to reflect light and strain your eyes additionally. Spending time on a river, lake, or on the open sea, hiking in snow, or driving when it’s particularly sunny outside “can effectively be like getting a double dose of UV radiation,” according to Dr. C. Stephen Foster who works at the Harvard Medical School as an ophthalmology professor. Another important thing to consider is altitude because at elevation UV light is stronger which then carries a greater risk of damage without a person wearing the necessary eyewear.
However, something as simple as a pair of sunglasses can practically eliminate all the risks. Be careful though because not all products offer the same protection. According to Taylor, it doesn’t matter if the shades are a specific color or how dark they are. “You should always get sunglasses that can block between 99% and 100% of UVB and UVA rays.”
Another thing people place too much importance on is the price. The truth of the matter is that even cheap, department store sunglasses can protect your eyes, but they have to have come with a sticker that notes the UV protection rate. Lastly, according to Taylor, “polarization has nothing to do with ultraviolet protection.”
Obviously, lens size makes a big difference. “With a bigger lens, you get more protection,” she says. “Small, round glasses inspired by the ones Lennon wore let a lot of light in from every direction.” The science backs this claim. Researches from Switzerland published a study in 2018 demonstrating that smaller sunglasses let more UV light in when compared to larger shade models. Moreover, goggles with additional protection blocked harmful rays the most.
Unfortunately, you cannot always wear sunglasses. Sometimes wearing them can interfere with photoreceptors in your eyes that help establish a circadian clock, which regulates your appetite, sleep, and other vital bodily functions, according to some published studies. Other research finds that getting enough bright light in the morning is crucial for a better night’s rest. Thus, putting on your sunglasses first thing in the morning may not be such a good idea if you want to sleep tight come nighttime.
Dr. Foster recommends that people try to put off using sunglasses before 10 a.m. Under normal circumstances, the light that you get from the morning sun isn’t bright enough to pose significant risks to your health or damage your eyes. It is better, according to him, to let the morning light adjust your body’s “natural clock.”
“UVA light-excited kynurenines oxidize ascorbate and modify lens proteins through the formation of advanced glycation end products: implications for human lens aging and cataract formation,” NCBI, June 13, 2014,
“Lifetime Exposure to Ambient Ultraviolet Radiation and the Risk for Cataract Extraction and Age-Related Macular Degeneration: The Alienor Study,” IOVS, November, 2014,