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UV light can be a real eye sore. Don't let it damage your eyes.

UV light can be a real eye sore. Don't let it damage your eyes.

My eye-story (get it?)

When I was 18, my vision started to deteriorate quite seriously.

It turned out my body wasn't falling apart due to old age but I had a progressive eye disease. This disease stabilised in my 30s and I'm (gratefully) able to see well enough now with the support of four (!) contact lenses. I wear two in each eye on a daily basis.

Without contact lens correction, my vision is extremely poor. I'd be hopeless in an emergency in the middle of the night or in the army - something I once thought about trying but obviously couldn't.

Real-eyes-ation (I should stop, right?)

The reason for sharing this is because I've always struggled in bright light, glare, or haze as a consequence of my eye issues. Winter or summer, it's all the same.

What I mean by 'struggle' is that my eyes would often get dry, weep, sting or squint in many light conditions. I'd always assumed my sensitivity to certain kinds of light was down to my personal eye issue, which I'm sure doesn't help.

However, the point of all of this is that ultraviolet (UV) light is a serious consideration for everybody's eyes. Including you, if you're reading this.

When we think of sun protection or burning, we think of the skin.

In fact, the eyes also get 'hit' by UV from direct sunlight, glare and reflected light each and every day. Some studies claim that our eyes are 10x more sensitive to UV light than our skin. Young babies and children's eyes are particularly sensitive because they haven't fully developed.

The point of today's journal post is to emphasise that you can't overlook your eyes. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explain when, how and why you need to protect your eyes.

When to protect yourself from eye-damaging UV?

We can't see UV light. On that basis, it can creep up on you without you realising.

Here are the most common times when you need to be particularly vigilant. It's not just sunbathers who should watch out.

1. When UV from the sun is strong

I'm very reluctant here to say 'when it's hot' or 'in the summer'.
I intentionally didn't in fact.

When the strength of the sun is above a certain level, as measured by the UV index scale, you should protect your eyes. This UV index 'threshold' is 3 (out of 11). Do a google search or just look at the weather app on your phone. The UV index is readily available and updated daily.

Level 3 could be a summer's day as much as a cloudy day or an autumnal day. It depends where in the world you are. Be reassured that UV reaches us every single day, all year round.

Also read: Familiar with the UV index? This is the most common myth when it comes to skin damage.

2. You're at altitude in the mountains

The higher up you climb, the closer you are to the sun and the stronger the UV. On top of that, your eyes receive an extra dose of UV from light that is reflected from snow back onto you. I always say you get hit twice when you're up a mountain so make sure you're particularly careful.

If you manage to make it out to the mountains this winter, be wary.

3. You're on or by water

Like snow, water reflects and scatters light in just the same way. On the ocean, there are fewer buildings or large objects to absorb any light. So it's just you, the sea, the entire sky and a whole lot of UV.

4. You work outside

The effects of UV on the cornea (the outer tissue covering the curved part of the eye) are cumulative. So, if you work outdoors, you're incrementally and regularly exposing your eyes to more and more light. Sunglasses and sun protection are an absolute must for you. Think of them as the helmet for your eyes and skin.

5. You're under a sun bed

You should know my feelings on sun beds but if you do happen to find yourself underneath one, wear eye protection. Better still, don't go under a sun bed at all.

Read more: Why you must skip the sun bed in your pursuit of a tan.

6. You're a welder or work with lasers

A small cohort I accept but welding machines and lasers emit UV light that requires eye protection at all times.

How can you protect your eyes and help avoid eye damage?

Cover your eyes. Simple.

Choose sunglasses or goggles that have the European 'CE' mark on the lenses themselves. This ensures the lenses meet European standards and it's the bare minimum lens protection you should use. An even better lens exists - these lenses are marked 'UV400'. This blocks 100% of UV sunlight that reaches the earth.*

The UV resistance of the lens is the most important factor and not the colour of the lens. Don't be tricked into thinking that a dark lens blocks more UV.

A further add-on you can choose is polarised lenses. These protect against glare or light that is reflected off surfaces like snow or water. This can alleviate eye fatigue and strain.

When choosing frames. try to choose something that covers a large area around your eyes.

A wide brimmed hat is also a good choice in conjunction with glasses. It can help protect the eyes and the face from the sun.

Finally, shade is good but it doesn't provide complete protection: 50% of UV can still reach you from scattered and reflected light.

What you're basically trying to eliminate is as much UV as possible creeping into your eyes.

I should make a quick reference to fake sunglasses. These often provide little or no UV protection. Worse still, because they are dark, the pupil dilates. UV passes straight through the cheap lens without being resisted and has a free run at a fully dilated pupil. Avoid the €5 pair of plastic shades at all costs.

What can UV light do to your eyes?

As I said, the effect of UV on the eyes is cumulative.

Reducing the amount of UV that the eye is exposed to over a lifetime is likely to prove beneficial in preventing eye damage.

It's never too late to start.

Beyond sunburn of the cornea (photokeratitis or 'snow blindness'), UV damage has also been linked to the following:

  1. Cataracts: Clouding of the eye's natural lens
  2. Pterygium: growths of skin on the white part of the eye
  3. Eye cancer
  4. Macular degeneration: irreversible loss of vision due to deterioration of a part of the retina at the back of the eye.

Suddenly, eye protection seems pretty important, right?

How to tell if you have eye sun burn?

In serious cases of eye sunburn, the outer corneal layer can become destroyed, exposing the nerve endings beneath it.

Sufferers often describe the feeling of having something in the eye. As if sand has got into the eye. Blinking is uncomfortable and sometimes painful.

In less serious cases, symptoms can include blurred vision, sore, teary, itchy or red eyes and sensitivity to light.

Although eye sunburn is normally harmless, it's something you should avoid altogether. It's certainly not something you want to repeat as that will only increase the risk of you getting something more serious.

What to do if you have eye sunburn?

Much like sunburnt skin, the symptoms of a sunburnt eye often only become noticeable 3-12 hours after the burn happened and it can last for a few days.

Prevention is the best defence so wear sunglasses and don't let it happen in the first place

However, accidents happen. So, if you do think you've burnt your eyes, follow these steps:

  • Go indoors and stay there. Avoid any further sunlight exposure. Cooling the eyes with a damp cloth can help.
  • Go to a doctor to get your eyes checked out. It might be mild but it's not worth taking the risk and playing around with your vision.
  • Remove contact lenses. They could just irritate things further. Wear reading glasses if you have them.
  • Don't rub or scratch your eyes even if they feel itchy. You'll just make them more red.
  • Ibuprofen or paracetamol can help with pain and inflammation

In my personal experience, eye drops are hit and miss. I've had experience of putting drops in my eyes and it stinging so much, it actually made things worse. So, I'd stay away from drops if you believe you've burnt your eyes. If you're using drops to keep the eyes moist while you're in the sun, I'd say that's absolutely fine. The sun, heat and air conditioning can dry your eyes after all and this is certainly something I suffer from.

We like to teach holistic sun protection...

....and eye protection is just one important part.

As ever, clothing, shade, skin care and a hat are equally important considerations.

Having eye problems is one hassle you can do without, I can personally assure you of that.

Remember, our goal is not to scaremonger. We just want you to take life outside and protect yourself at the same time.

* For those of you that care, UVA and UVB are the two forms of ultraviolet radiation that reach the earth. UVB has a wavelength range of 280-315nm and UVA has a wavelength range of 315-400nm. The European standard allows for lenses that block up to 380nm i.e. not the complete UVA wavelength range. That is why I suggested UV400 as well. This provides 100% protection against UVA and UVB.