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Here’s What Your Sunglasses Are Really Doing To Your Eyes

When we think about sun protection, most of us picture lathering up with a good SPF 50 before hitting the beach. There’s one little vulnerability, however, that many of us neglect, and which it turns out can be just as important: Our eyes.

According to a 2014 study by by the U.S. National Eye Institute, UV radiation can damage the proteins in your eye’s lens over time, increasing the risk of cataracts and age-related blindness. When you go into the sun without protection, invisible radiation penetrates your eyes and the sensitive structures inside them, not unlike a laser beam.

According to Marham Heid, writing for Time, not only does exposure to the sun’s rays cause macular degeneration – the kind of damage that ruins your vision over time – but the effects could be even more serious. “sun exposure is also linked to eye cancer and to a form of short-term, sunburn-like eye injury called photokeratitis (sometimes known as ‘welder’s burn’),” he writes, “which can cause temporary blindness or blotchy vision”.

sunglasses
Photo by Chase Fade on Unsplash

Not all exposure to the sun causes the same kind of damage. factors like water, snow, or a windshield can reflect more light into your eyes. So going skiing, spending time on a boat, or taking a road trip on a very sunny day could cause more damage. Dr. C. Stephen Foster, a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School says that this is because “you’re getting the direct exposure from the sun and a second exposure from the reflected light,” resulting in a “double dose” of those harmful rays.

That’s where your sunglasses come in. But, like the light itself, not all sunglasses are created equal.

Contrary to what you may believe, the price, or the darkness of your shades may not be the deciding factor when it comes to the protection they offer. Your expensive Gucci glasses are probably no more effective than the ones your buddy got at a flea market for a tenth of the price. What matters is that they offer protection against 99 to 100% of UVA and UVB rays. Look for a little sticker on the lens that tells you they do this, or put them straight back on the rack.

The size also makes a difference, so if, like me, you partook in that 2000s trend in which we all walked around with massive sunglasses and resembled praying mantises, there was perfectly valid reason for it. If you still have those big ol’ shades, whip them back out so you can protect those peepers. 2000s trends are back anyway, the massive glasses might make an epic return any day now.

However, according to Heid, there is one caveat to wearing your sunglasses all day long. According to studies, “light-sensing photoreceptors in the eye help to set the body’s circadian clocks, which play a role in regulating sleep, appetite, and much else”. Those of us who get higher levels of bright light in the morning tend to sleep better at night than those who don’t. Wearing shades can stop these rays from doing their job keeping our body clocks on track.

So, as long as you’re not staring directly into the sun, or waking up on the deck of a boat, it may be a good idea to refrain from wearing your sunglasses for a little while after you get up. According to Foster, going without your shades until about 10 in the morning can help set your “internal clock” if you have difficulty in this department.

All in all, though, your sunglasses should be your new best friend. Unless they came without that little UVB/UVA protection sticker on them, in which case, promptly dispose of those imposters. They belong in the trash, not on your face.

Next time you pay a visit to the beach, board a boat or take a road trip, remember to take good care of your eyeballs as well as your skin, and throw a pair of sunglasses in with your sunscreen. Your older self will thank you in a few decades time.

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