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Feb. 25, 2024

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Watch the eclipse without burning your retinas

By , Columbian Health Reporter
3 Photos
Optometric assistant Rhandy Rogers of Longview tries on a pair of solar eclipse glasses Wednesday outside of the Kaiser Permanente Orchards Medical Office in Vancouver. The eclipse glasses need to be worn to protect the eyes from damage caused by the ultraviolet rays of the sun.
Optometric assistant Rhandy Rogers of Longview tries on a pair of solar eclipse glasses Wednesday outside of the Kaiser Permanente Orchards Medical Office in Vancouver. The eclipse glasses need to be worn to protect the eyes from damage caused by the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Photos by Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

To protect your eyes while watching the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, you need glasses. Not sunglasses, special eclipse glasses.

But be careful; scammers have created fake eclipse glasses. Make sure you purchase certified eclipse glasses.

Got a welding mask lying around? That’ll work — as long as it has a No. 14 filter.

And don’t use your camera or binoculars, at least not without a special filter for the device (those special eclipse glasses aren’t special enough).

Can’t keep up with the dos and don’ts? Just take an eclipse selfie. Snapping a shot of yourself with the sun over your shoulder is the safest way to catch a glimpse of the eclipse without protective eyewear, said Dr. Marlaina Watkins, an optometrist and director of virtual care for Kaiser Permanente’s Vision Essentials.

“You’re going to be able to see the eclipse on your cellphone,” not take in the harmful ultraviolet rays directly, she said. “That’s a great way to take a picture of it.”

(There’s some debate as to whether cellphones need filters, too. Apple says iPhones don’t because they, and similar smartphones, use wide-angle lenses.)

Failing to protect your peepers during the eclipse can cause some pretty serious damage to your eyes, Watkins said. Staring at the sun too long — even a partially obstructed sun — can literally burn your retinas.

“It’s not the brightness of the sun that’s the issue. It’s not heat that hurts the eyes. And it’s not even the light we can see,” Watkins said. “It is the ultraviolet light of the sun that we cannot see … that actually causes the damage.”

The UV light causes the brain to release chemicals that can burn the retina. It’s not a thermal burn but an oxidative burn, and the damage can be permanent, Watkins said. Some layers of the retina can heal, most can’t. If damage is done to layers that can’t heal, you’ll be left with permanent blurring or spots in the center of your vision, she said.

The problem is that the eyes don’t have pain receptors so you won’t feel your retinas burning. That means the damage can be done without you realizing it, Watkins said.

“By the time you notice something changing in your vision, the damage is already there,” she said.

Looking at the eclipse isn’t inherently more dangerous than looking at the sun any other day, Watkins said. Most of the time, if the sun is full and bright, we turn away because it’s uncomfortable. During the eclipse, part of the sun is blocked so it’s not as bright. It’s more tolerable to stare, she said.

“That gives us the false assumption that it’s safer,” Watkins said.

While the eclipse isn’t safer, there are steps you can take to protect your vision and still enjoy the event.

• Wear eclipse glasses.

Eclipse glasses are available at stores across the county, as well as online. But take caution: Fake glasses have made their way to the market. Be sure the glasses you purchase are made by brands certified as authentic. A list is available on the NASA website: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety.

Be sure to put the glasses on before turning toward the sun. Likewise, turn away from the sun before removing the glasses, Watkins said.

And, unless you’re in the path of totality, the glasses need to stay on the entire time you’re looking at the sun. Those in the path of totality will have a brief window — about two minutes long — when the moon completely blocks the sun, where it’s safe to remove the glasses, Watkins said.

For everyone else, the glasses stay on. And, Watkins points out, Clark County is not in the path of totality.

“If you’re standing in Washington, there is no safe time to take off the glasses,” she said. “The Vancouver area, the Portland metro area, is outside of totality and will need constant protection.”

You can also use a hand-held solar viewer, but those are a little harder to come by, Watkins said.

• Your sunglasses — even really dark ones — are not sufficient.

While many sunglasses report 100 percent UV protection, they can’t provide the level of protection necessary for staring at the sun, Watkins said. Sunglasses are designed to protect the eyes from indirect sun exposure, like from light bouncing off of things in the environment, she said. The UV concentration is significantly higher in direct sun exposure, Watkins said.

“Sunglasses just aren’t designed for that intensity of exposure,” she said.

• Don’t look through optical devices without the appropriate filters.

Cameras, binoculars, telescopes and other optical devices require professional-grade solar filters (not just tinted lenses) in order to be safely used, Watkins said. Wearing eclipse glasses is not sufficient. The devices will concentrate the light and damage the glasses to the point where they won’t protect your eyes, she said.

• If you don’t have eclipse glasses, take a selfie.

Use your cellphone camera in selfie mode (forward-facing camera) to snap a shot of yourself with the sun in the background. That way your phone absorbs the rays and provides a safe-to-look-at version of the sun, Watkins said.

• Welder masks work — with the right filter.

Welder masks with a No. 14 filter in good condition are safe to use during the eclipse, Watkins said. That’s darker than most welders typically use, she said, but it’s the only filter approved for use during the eclipse.

• Have kids wear hats.

If you’re trying to share the event with your children, make sure they have their own glasses. In addition, have them wear a hat with a bill, Watkins said. The bill will make it harder for little ones to look over the top of the glasses, she said.

If it’s a very young child, Watkins recommends sticking with the eclipse selfies. Put the child on your lap and take photos together, she said.

• If you notice vision changes, take action.

Some people may experience dry eyes, due to the exposure to the surface of the eye. If that happens, use an artificial tear drop to moisturize the eyes, Watkins said. Avoid those that promise to “take the red out” or that are designed for allergies, she said.

Antioxidant vitamins may also help. While there’s no evidence they’re effective for damage caused by looking at the sun, they have been shown to help with macular degeneration, which is another type of oxidative damage, Watkins said.

The two antioxidant vitamins that are helpful for eyes are lutein and zeaxanthin, she said.

Your eyes may also be overly sensitive to light. If that happens, take steps to reduce your exposure to bright lights for the following several days, Watkins said. That may mean wearing sunglasses more than normal, even indoors, she said.

“That gives the inside of your eye a break from dealing with those levels of light as an irritant,” Watkins said.

Columbian Health Reporter