Most of us are aware that we should protect our skin against UV (ultraviolet) rays by using sun cream and covering up. But do you ever consider what UV can do to our eyes?

Many of us wear sunglasses as a practicality to reduce the glare of the sun, or even to look cool, but there is a more serious reason for wearing shades.

UV radiation from the sun can have both short- and long-term effects on the condition of our eyes. It can burn the surface, cornea and lens of the eye, much like sun can burn skin. Long-term exposure to UV radiation can be serious. For instance, exposure to UV significantly increases the risk of developing cataracts, a clouding of the eyes lens and the leading cause of blindness in the world.

According to the Eyecare Trust our eyes are 10 times more sensitive to UV light than our skin but children’s eyes face an even greater risk of UV damage. Big pupils and clearer lenses means that 70 per cent more UV light can reach the retina of a child. 

The World Health Organization estimates that this lack of natural eye protection, combined with the amount of time children spend playing outdoors, could mean that as much as 80 per cent of a lifetime’s UV is absorbed into the eye by the time a child reaches the age of 18.

In the UK, cumulative exposure to UV is one of the main causes of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts – the leading cause of sight loss that affects one in three people aged over 65 years. Parents need to ensure they protect their children’s eyes from the sun, or they are putting them at risk of permanent damage to their sight in the future.

Looking after your eyes

To protect your eyes from UV exposure it is important to wear good quality UV protective sunglasses that block out 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation and that screens 75 to 90 percent of visible light. Wraparound sunglasses offer the best protection while grey lenses give proper colour recognition. To protect your eyes further, you should also seek shade during the hottest time of the day between 11am and 3pm when UV penetration is at its strongest.

The UV index (the strength of the sun) can be high at many times of the year. It is worth remembering that it doesn’t have to be hot and the sky doesn’t have to be cloudless for UV levels to be high. We grade the UV level from low to very high, and it is important to take action when UV levels are moderate or above.