Obviously, you can’t put sunscreen in your eyes. A hat can keep a good chunk of direct sunlight out of your eyes, but a hat just isn’t enough. You can’t see the UV rays bouncing from every reflective surface, but they are – and after years of insufficient protection the accumulated damage can leave you seeing even less with cataracts, cancer, and other eye growths and diseases.
Your eyes are valuable tools that can be easily damaged if you don’t take precautions. But do all sunglasses do enough to keep your eyes safe from the sun?
Why protect my eyes from the sun?
Apart from the obvious discomfort and visibility issues when out in the bright sun, the risk of UV damage to your eyes is as important as the risk to your skin. UV damage to your eyes, while not as noticeable in the short term as UV damage to skin, can still lead to cancer and other growths that can at minimum be uncomfortable, at worst be deadly. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 20% of cataracts are likely the result of UV radiation exposure to the eye. Other harms associated with UV exposure to the eyes include:
- Cataracts (cloudiness of the eye lens)
- Macular degeneration (i.e. retina damage)
- Pterygium (overgrowth of the membrane which usually covers the inside of the eyelid and whites of the eyes, to growing onto the cornea)
- Climatic droplet keratopathy (cloudiness of the cornea)
Eye surgery isn’t very fun. It’s much easier to don a pair of sunnies every day than to have cataracts cut out of your eyes in a decade’s time.
When should I wear sunglasses?
While there’s zero harm and potentially massive benefit to wearing sunglasses as much as possible while outside, particular places offer greater risk of UV damage to your eyes. Just like with sunburn, this risk is unrelated to how hot the weather is.
Highly reflective surfaces increase the amount of UV exposure, as light is not only coming directly from the sun but is also bounced around to hit you from multiple angles. For example, the beach is not only highly exposed to the sun, but the sand and the water are both very good at reflecting UV light so it hits you more than once. Unshaded pools and ponds are also a source of extra UV exposure thanks to all of that reflective water. A wide brimmed hat isn’t enough here – the UV rays bounce up from underneath. Sunglasses help block light from more angles.
This is also why goggles are so important while skiing and snowboarding – they’re not just from keeping the wind and snow out of your eyes. Snow is extremely reflective, and even though it’s cold it can cause sunburn and eye damage from reflected light. That’s why you get a google tan and can get burned or sensitive skin on exposed areas (usually your face) after a few days out on the slopes.
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What are polarised lenses?
Polarised lenses have a special coating, made of molecules lined up to work like microscopic window blinds – they allow light in through horizontal openings, but block vertical light waves. This stops a lot of reflective light such as that from water, sand, shiny car hoods and any other highly reflective surfaces. Reducing glare in this way not only limits the amount of UV rays reaching your eyes, but also reduces eye strain and fatigue from spending a long time in bright light. Looking through polarised lenses makes the world appear a bit darker, but thanks to the reduced glare you can see more detail, more clearly.
Polarised lenses aren’t so helpful when using LCD screens (e.g. car dashboard, ATM, phones, certain watches) as it makes seeing them difficult.
Which sunglasses protect my eyes best?
The first thing to note is that price is no indication of UV protection quality. Often, the price tag is more about paying for fashion or for frame build quality. This is because there are mandatory regulations that mean all sunglasses are supposed to meet a minimum standard for sun protection. However, that doesn’t mean that all sunglasses are equal when it comes to protecting your precious eyes from UV damage. Check that the sunglasses are labelled as compliant with one of the following standards:
- AS/NZS 1067 (sunglasses and fashion spectacles)
- AS/NZS 1337.1:2010 (eye and face protectors for occupational applications)
- Untinted sunglasses marked ‘O’ also have sufficient UV protection for outdoor use
There are a few other specific things to consider depending on when you wear your sunnies. When looking for sunglasses to wear while driving, check you can clearly identify colours (i.e. traffic lights) through the tint. Clear and accurate vision is a necessity when driving – preventing cancer won’t help you so much if in the process you get into a car crash.
Sunglasses designed for use while playing particular sports can make eye protection easier, such as cycling sunnies, snow goggles, and swimming goggles with UV protection.
Best sunglasses lenses
The Australian and New Zealand Standards break eyewear lenses down into five categories. To protect your eyes from damage, you should choose lenses that are category 2 or higher.
|Lens category 0:
|Not sunglasses; limited to no UV protection|
|Lens category 1:
|Not sunglasses; provide limited glare reduction and UV protection; unsuitable for night driving|
|Lens category 2:
|Provide medium level of sun glare reduction and good UV protection|
|Lens category 3:
|Provide high level of sun glare reduction and good UV protection|
|Lens category 4:
|Special purpose sunglasses which provide a very high level of sun glare reduction and good UV protection; must not be worn while driving|
Source: Australian and New Zealand Standards
The next layer of eye protection rating was created by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, called EPF (Eye Protection Factor). It’s recommended to choose sunglasses that have an EPF rating of 9 or 10. Sunglasses may also be labelled as UV 400, meaning that the lenses block 100% of UV rays.
Lens tint darkness doesn’t necessarily indicate UV protection, however, there are some special tints that can help to increase UV or glare protection, or serve other practical or cosmetic functions. For example, blue-blocker lenses block blue light, which are often used for snow sports, water sports, and pilots to increase contrast. There is also some evidence that blue light could increase risk of eye damage from particular diseases.
Best sunglasses shape
The Cancer Council recommends large, close-fitting, wraparound sunglasses to make sure that your eyes are properly protected from every angle. A good indication that your eyes aren’t properly protected is if light can reach your peripheral vision without going through your sunglasses first.
Failing that, big sunglasses paired with a wide brimmed hat can do a solid job of keeping the sun and its harmful UV rays out of your eyes.
Young children are particularly vulnerable, but sometimes it can be pretty hard to get your little one to keep their sunnies on – especially if they’re very young. It’s doubly important for young children to wear a full-coverage hat (e.g. wide brimmed or legionnaires styles) plus stay under shade as much as possible. Portable sun shades can be handy for outings to the park or beach, as well as outdoor play at home.