I recently attended a conference in New York and the hot topic was ‘UV exposure’. Damage to the earth’s ozone layer means people are more susceptible than ever to solar radiation. While most people are aware of the dangers that UV exposure poses for the skin, very few – just 6 per cent according to a survey discussed at the conference – knew about the relationship between UV exposure and eye conditions.
UV exposure can also damage the eyes and play a part in the development of several eye conditions, including cataracts, macular degeneration and various cancers of the eye lids. Short term effects of over-exposure to UV light, common in water or snow sports, include UV keratitis, where the cornea at the front of the eye is burned and becomes inflamed and sore. This will usually resolve within 24 hours.
Cheap sunglasses may reduce the sunlight, but they can in fact be harmful to the eye. They cause the pupil to dilate in response to the lower light conditions, but they do not have the correct filters to reduce the harmful UV radiation. This means that more of the harmful rays get into the eye as the pupil is actually wider.
So, what should you do to protect your eyes?
Many modern contact lenses also have special UV filters built in, so if you play sport outdoors a lot, and wear contact lenses, it is worth seeing if you can get these types of UV-block contact lenses to suit your prescription.
Frames should be large enough to cover all the eye and area around the eye. Wrap-around frames are particularly good for preventing light from entering around the sides of the frame. Remember though, while cheap sunglasses may have big frames, the lenses won’t offer optimum protection and visual comfort in the sun.
In Europe, sunglasses should have CE approved mark. However, unlike in Australia and the US, the use of the CE mark is self-regulating in Europe, so the CE mark does not necessarily mean the lenses are 100 per cent UV protective. Look for lenses that are 100 per cent UVA and UVB protective or UV 400 protective.
Good lenses in your sunglasses should reduce glare, give good visual comfort, allow clear vision with distortion, give full UV protection, cover the eyes fully and minimise the distortion of colours.
Sun lenses can be made to suit most prescriptions. High-quality polarising lenses with all the necessary filters to protect the eyes are now a commonplace choice for prescription sunglasses.
Another option for wearing prescription lenses with sun protection are photochromatic lenses, which are clear indoors but will darken outdoors when exposed to UV light.
It is also possible to get clip-overs, which are made from sun lens materials but fit over your normal prescription glasses.
While all prescription sun lenses will automatically offer good UV protection, it is now possible to get high-performance sun lenses made to prescription, offering additional protection, comfort and high quality vision.
Áine Higgins is an optician based in Mongey Opticians, Castlebar and Ballinrobe. She was the first Irish optician to be nominated for the UK and Ireland Optician of the Year 2010.