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Most people are now aware of the risks of excessive exposure to ultraviolet light on the health of your skin. But did you know that UV light can be equally damaging to your eyes?
A growing body of research has linked UV exposure to a number of eye disorders. Degenerative or even cancerous changes to structures like your eyelids and the cornea (the surface layer of the eye) are the most obvious risks. However, UV rays can also affect many structures inside the eye. Even low levels of UV exposure are strongly linked to the development of cataracts. More recently, studies have linked UV exposure to an increased risk of age-related macular degeneration. Both of these conditions are major causes of blindness.
You may not realise it but, unlike your skin, your eyes are most at risk from reflected or scattered light, not from direct sun exposure. Your eyelids and eyebrows offer some protection when the sun is directly overhead, but when the sun is lower in the sky, or UV rays are scattered by cloud cover, the amount of UV entering the eye is much greater.
However, possibly the greatest risk is light reflected from surfaces such as concrete, glass, snow, water or even grass. This obvious implications for winter or water sports, but also means that our eyes can be at risk in all daylight and weather conditions. The level of UV exposure which poses a risk to our eyes is actually much lower than that which is considered to be a risk to skin health. Current advice is that UV protection should be worn all year round.
So how can we protect our eyes? There are several options, that offer varying levels of protection.
A fairly recent development are UV blocking contact lenses, which filter a large proportion of UV light. To gain maximum protection the latest advice is to wear this type of contact lenses together with UV-protection sunglasses. This may seem to be a step too far for most people, so probably the simplest solution is to wear good-quality sunglasses. It’s important to make sure that the sunglasses you choose are giving the best protection. Look for lenses which are CE marked and offer 100% UV protection – the colour and depth of tint has no bearing on the level of UV protection. Wearing cheaper darker lenses with no UV protection is actually more dangerous than wearing no sunglasses: the natural eye defences of pupil constriction and ‘squinting’ in bright light conditions are fooled by the tinted lenses. Polarised lenses offer additional protection from reflected glare. The fit of the sunglasses is also important. The best protection would be offered by glasses with side-shields fitted, but current frame fashions show that these types of frames are not popular! However a close-fitting and wrapped frame will offer much more protection from light entering the eye around the edges of the frame.
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