Sunglasses are like sunscreen for the eyes — if you get the right ones

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

How often do you wear sunglasses?

  • Whenever it’s sunny outside. 47%
  • All the time. Even indoors. 9%
  • Only when I’m engaged in outdoor activities. 30%
  • Never. What’s the point? 13%

129 total votes.

Everyone has heard that sunscreen protects the skin from the sun's ultraviolet rays. But what about protecting the eyes from powerful UV rays?

Sunglasses are like sunscreen for the eyes, said Michael Perman, optician at Vancouver Vision Clinic.

"You need to filter out UV rays whenever you can," he said.

Ultraviolet rays can have both short- and long-term effects on the eyes, according to the American Optometric Association.

Eyes exposed to excessive amounts of UV rays over a short period of time can experience an effect similar to a sunburn, called photokeratitis. The condition may be painful and include symptoms such as red eyes, a gritty feeling in the eyes, extreme sensitivity to light and excessive tearing. The condition is usually temporary and rarely causes permanent damage to the eyes, according to the optometric association.

Long-term exposure to UV rays, though, can cause more serious problems, according to the American Optometric Association.

Research has shown exposure to small amounts of UV radiation over a period of many years increases the chance of developing cataracts and may cause damage to retinas, the lining of the eyes used for seeing, according to the association.

"Those tissues in the eye are pretty sensitive and fragile, for lack of a better term," Perman said.

To shield eyes from UV rays, the association recommends wearing sunglasses.

"Most professionals recommend, even in infancy, wearing some sort of UV protection," Perman said.

When purchasing sunglasses, the most important thing to look for is lenses with both UVA and UVB protection, said Alyssa Holla, optician at East Vancouver Eye.

"A lot of people think it's the color of the lens that protects them, but they just have to make sure there is UV protection," she said. "It doesn't matter the color."

Sunglasses typically have a label on the lenses telling consumers the glasses have UV protection, Perman said.

"If you just get tinted lenses without UV protection, it can actually be a little bit more damaging to the eye," Perman said.

When a dark lens is placed in front of the eye, the eye will dilate slightly. If the lens does not include UV protection, the dilation will allow more light and UV rays into the eye, he said.

Polarized lenses are even better, Perman said. Polarized lenses eliminate more brightness and glare from surfaces than unpolarized lenses, he said.

The tint of sunglass lenses serves as more than a fashion statement. The color and darkness determine how much light can pass through the lenses.

In the Pacific Northwest, brown lenses are most popular, Holla said. The brown lens helps brighten things up but still protects the eyes, she said.

In really sunny locations, gray lenses are better because they allow the least amount of light to pass through, Holla said.

Regardless of where you live, Perman recommends tinted sunglasses with UV protection whenever you're outside.

"Sunglasses are pretty important for really anybody when you're outside," he said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.