The Sun and Your Eyes: What You Need to Know

UV protection. Not just for skin.

Did you know it’s just as important to protect your eyes from the sun’s harmful rays as it is to shield your skin? The intense ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun can damage sensitive cells in the eyes, eventually affecting vision. Experts say it is difficult to isolate the exact amount of damage that UV radiation imposes on the eye over a long period. However, a number of studies have shown that the effects build up and may increase the chance of developing eye problems later in life. These problems may include cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye. Cataracts are a leading cause of reduced vision in the United States in people age 60 and older, according to the National Eye Institute.

ABCs of ultraviolet radiation

There are three ranges of UV radiation: UVC, UVB and UVA. The most damaging form is UVC, but luckily it’s absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere and doesn’t reach us. Exposure to UVB rays is closely linked with photokeratitis (a kind of sunburn of the cornea), cataracts, pterygium (a white or creamy fleshy growth on the surface of the eye) and a form of eye cancer called squamous cell carcinoma of the conjunctiva (a rare tumor of the surface of the eye). Although laboratory studies find exposure to UVA rays can damage the retina (the light-sensitive membrane that covers the back of the eye), very little UVA reaches your retina because most is absorbed by other parts of the eye.

Eye damage in the short term is possible

It can take years before you experience any of the sun’s damaging effects on your eyes. However, some damage can occur in the short term, such as photokeratitis and photoconjunctivitis, an inflammation of the membrane outside of the eye (think pinkeye). If your eyes feel tired, sore and gritty after a day at the beach, skiing or boating, you may have experienced UV radiation exposure.

Unexpected sources of ultraviolet radiation damage

Although direct sunlight from the sun itself is extremely damaging to eyes, reflected UV rays can be even more dangerous. For example:

  • Grass, soil and water reflect less than 10 percent of UV radiation.
  • Fresh snow reflects as much as 80 percent of UV radiation.
  • Dry sand reflects about 15 percent of UV radiation.
  • Sea foam reflects about 25 percent.

Because you’re more likely to look down than up, there is a difference in the amount of UV light reflected directly into your eyes. Hats with brims offer no protection from UV rays reflected up from surfaces such as pavement, sand and water.

The time of day also influences the available UV rays, but eye exposure to it is quite different than for skin. At noon, the UV dose can be as much as 10 times higher than the dose three hours earlier or later. However, because the eye is naturally shaded by the brow ridge when the sun is high in the sky, the highest ultraviolet radiation exposure for eyes and skin is actually in the morning and mid-afternoon, rather than at noon. Sun exposure to the eyes tends to be more continual in fall, winter and spring when the sun is lower in the sky.

Choose sunglasses that limit transmission to no more than  1 percent UVB and 1 percent UVA rays.

Protecting your eyes from sun damage

While sunglasses are definitely a good idea when it comes to eye protection, not all sunglasses are created equal. Choose sunglasses that limit transmission to no more than 1 percent UVB and 1 percent UVA rays. Sometimes the information on the glasses indicates 99 percent of the UV rays are blocked. That’s OK.

Other things to look for:

  • Wrap-around sunglasses or lenses large enough to completely cover the eye and prevent as much light as possible from entering through the edges of the glasses are best.
  • Darker lenses can be helpful, particularly if you are more light sensitive.
  • Gray lenses provide the least color distortion but do not offer any better protection than other colored lenses.

While most sunglasses can help block UV rays from entering through the lenses, most frame styles do not prevent rays from reaching the sides, top and bottom of the glasses.

Protecting your eyes with contact lenses

UV-blocking contact lenses can also provide an important measure of additional protection. The level of protection can vary. Contact lenses that protect against UV rays are classified into two categories: Class 1 and Class 2. Class 1 UV-blockers provide the greatest measure of UV protection.

The American Optometric Association’s Commission on Ophthalmic Standards, which provides independent evaluations of ophthalmic-related products, has determined that only products that meet these standards for each class may claim to be UV-blocking.

Not all contact lenses offer UV protection, and in fact most do not. Of those that do, not all provide similar absorption levels.* While UV-blocking contact lenses are beneficial in helping to protect against harmful UV rays, clinical studies have not been done to show they directly reduce the risk of any specific eye disease or condition. On average, contact lenses without UV-blocking capability allow 90 percent of UVA radiation and 70 percent of UVB radiation to pass through the lenses to your eyes.

While UV-blocking contact lenses provide important added protection for wearers, they should not be viewed as a stand-alone solution. Contact lenses should always be worn in conjunction with high-quality UV-blocking sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.

Protect your children’s eyes

Researchers estimate we receive 80 percent of our lifetime exposure to UV rays before age 18. Compared to their parents, children have larger pupils (allowing more light into their eyes) and clearer lenses and are outside without eye protection much more frequently and for longer periods than most adults. That’s why it’s so important to protect children’s eyes with appropriate eyewear.

More sun protection is better

More is better when it comes to protecting your eyes from the sun, according to eye experts. If you’re planning to be out in the sun, you can protect your eyes with a combination of quality sunglasses, UVblocking contact lenses and a wide-brimmed hat. For more information, talk to your eye care professional today, who’ll help you choose the right eyewear for you to help you enjoy the great outdoors even more.

Article information courtesy of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care Inc., makers of ACUVUE® Brand Contact Lenses. Visit for more information.

Fast Facts for Your Health: The Sun & Your Eyes: What You Need to Know was developed with the support of VISTAKON®, Division of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc.

ACUVUE® is a trademark of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc.© Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc. 2013.

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*WARNING: UV-absorbing contact lenses are NOT substitutes for protective UV-absorbing eyewear such as UV-absorbing goggles or sunglasses because they do not completely cover the eye and surrounding area. You should continue to use UV-absorbing eyewear as directed. NOTE: Long-term exposure to UV radiation is one of the risk factors associated with cataracts. Exposure is based on a number of factors such as environmental conditions (altitude, geography, cloud cover) and personal factors (extent and nature of outdoor activities). UV-blocking contact lenses help provide protection against harmful UV radiation. However, clinical studies have not been done to demonstrate that wearing UV-blocking contact lenses reduces the risk of developing cataracts or other eye disorders. Consult your eye care practitioner for more information. Important information for contact lens wearers: An eye care professional will determine whether contact lenses are right for you. Although rare, serious eye problems can develop while wearing contact lenses. To help avoid these problems, follow the wear and replacement schedule and the lens care instructions provided by your eye doctor. Do not wear contact lenses if you have an eye infection or experience eye discomfort, excessive tearing, vision changes, redness or other eye problems. If one of these conditions occurs, contact your eye doctor immediately. For more information on proper wear, care and safety, talk to your eye care professional.