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Published on June 28, 2017

couple on the beach wearing sunglasses

Sunglasses: Not Just for Fashion

While sunglasses are usually selected as fashion accessories, the protection they provide your eyes should be the main driver behind your choice.

Avera Medical Eye Group Optometrist Paul Draayer, OD, said if you’re among the 46 percent of American who do not wear this important level of protection, you should reconsider.

“Everyone should be wearing this specific type of eyewear, and I would say to all of the people who think sunglasses are only for fashion purposes, remember the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause several eye problems,” he said. “Those problems may not manifest overnight or even in the near future, but UV damage is cumulative and irreversible, so start protecting your eyes today.”

Sun-Caused Problems

Some of the eye problems people might develop from long-term UV exposure include cataract formation, macular degeneration and cancerous growths on both the eye and eyelid.

UV rays also can cause growths on the clear covering over the white portion of your eye that’s known as pinguecula. It looks like a yellow spot or bump on your eyes. The rays also can lead to pterygium, a fleshy growth that may start as pinguecula.

“One of the more immediate effects of UV exposure is photokeratitis, or basically sunburn of the eyes,” Draayer said. “It usually presents a few hours after exposure with symptoms of irritation, pain and a gritty feeling. It can become a serious situation and sunglasses can help prevent it and the other issues that come with UV rays.”

If you’re a “cap or hat” person and think that’s enough, think again. Wearing a cap/hat can provide a decent amount of protection for the eyes from the sun, but reflected light will still reach your peepers.

“When UV rays are coming off of water, snow or concrete, they can still find a way into the eyes, thus, it is always recommended to wear sunglasses along with a hat whenever possible,” said Draayer. “It is important to protect your eyes from the sun at any age, but especially when we are younger. UV damage is cumulative, and obviously we are more likely to get longer sun exposure when we are young. Finding a pair of good sunglasses for your children is exceedingly important.”

How to Pick Them

So now that you’re going to seek out sunglasses for you and your children, the choices should be wise ones. When purchasing them, look for labels that say “Blocks 99 (or 100 percent) of all UV light” but be careful not to be tricked by dark sunglasses.

“Many people think the darker the sunglasses, the better, but while darker lenses may prevent more light from entering your eye, they do not necessarily block UV rays any better than the lighter sunglasses,” Draayer said. “Look for that level of UV protection more than the shade of the lens.”

He added that while some contact lenses have built-in UV protection, that’s not a universal feature in contacts.

“Ask your eye doctor if your contact lenses offer this protection, and even if they do, wearing sunglasses over your contacts will provide added protection to your eyes,” he said. “Sunglasses also will extend coverage to the eyelids and surrounding areas.”

Everyone Needs Protection

Draayer reminded individuals with dark skin that while it’s true you have a lower risk of skin cancer from UV damage, that doesn’t apply to your eyes; UV damage occurs in the same fashion for darker-skinned and lighter-skinned and affects both genders about the same.

“If you have any of the symptoms I mentioned, or you notice cream-colored growth on white part of eye, changes to color vision, night vision, or overall vision, consult your eye doctor,” he said. “Discolorations or bumps on eyelids and even sometimes on the eye can be early warning signs of a more serious issue that could affect your vision. If you discover them, get help so the problem can be addressed. And wear your sunglasses! They’ll help protect your eyes.”

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