Ultraviolet (UV) light is an invisible, electromagnetic radiation. Your exposure to UV rays comes primarily from the sun, even on a cloudy day. The sun emits UV rays, and unprotected, prolonged exposure can cause serious vision problems. One simple solution to maintaining healthy vision is to use UV protective eyewear, such as sunglasses, no matter the season, location or activity. Each year, The Vision Council conducts research regarding UV eye safety. The 2014 report, Picture This: A Lifetime of UV Eye Protection, can be found here.
We also developed an infographic showing some of the results of the report. You can download the infographic here to share on your social media channels, in your place of business, or in your own home.
How UV Radiation Affects Your Eyes
Many adults are concerned about cosmetic issues, such as premature skin aging – particularly around the eyes – caused by UV exposure, as well as by squinting. Wrinkles, sun spots and abnormal growths on the eye and eyelid are attributed to sun exposure and can appear as early as age 20 or 30. The best line of defense is wearing sunglasses and UV protective eyewear – every day.
Beyond cosmetic problems, UV exposure can also lead to serious, debilitating vision problems. UVA and UVB rays reach the Earth's surface in one of three ways: directly from the sun, scattered through the open sky or reflected off surrounding environments. Once UV rays pass through the atmosphere, our bodies and eyes are exposed to them immediately.
UV rays that reach the eye are absorbed primarily by the cornea, which is the eye’s front, transparent surface. This exposure can lead to serious and in some cases long-term health issues, including photokeratitis, pterygium, cataracts, macular degeneration and even cancer of the eye, eyelid or surrounding skin.
UV damage is cumulative, meaning that damage done to the eyes adds up over time, and once the damage has been done it cannot be reversed. For this reason, it is never too early or too late to start protecting your eyes from damaging amounts of UV radiation. You can decrease your UV exposure by wearing sunglasses any time you are outdoors, year-round.
UV radiation is present no matter the season. Although it can be easier to feel the impact of sun on skin in the summer, UV radiation is always present and can be even more damaging during colder months when adults and children stop wearing UV protection. While the UV index is highest in the spring and summer, it can still reach moderate to very high levels in September and October.
In winter months, UV rays can reflect off of snow and into the eyes. After a fresh snowfall or during winter sports activities, individuals can experience photokeratitis, also known as “snow blindness.”
UV strength usually peaks at solar noon but it can still have damaging effects in the hours before and after noon. A recent study found that during the early morning hours (8–10 a.m.) and late afternoon hours (2–4 p.m.), the eye receives nearly double the amount of UV that it does during the midday hours (10 a.m.–2 p.m.). UV-protective eyewear should especially be worn during these hours.
How to Protect Your Eyes from Harmful UV Rays
Sunglasses and other eyewear offering UV protection block UV radiation and shield the eyes. Whether you wear glasses or contacts, you also need to have UV protection.
Most contact lenses are manufactured with UV coatings that offer some protection to the eyes from UV rays; however, since contact lenses do not cover the entire eyeball, sunglasses are still necessary.
If you wear glasses, prescription-strength, UV-protective lenses are widely available in various price ranges and styles. Keep in mind that UV-protective lenses do not have to be gray or have a dark tint. Your eye care provider can order clear lenses that contain UV treatments for your everyday glasses. Colored or tinted lenses are made for comfort, which is why when you buy sunglasses you always need to be sure to look for a UV-protection indicator.
Wearing sunglasses and other UV-protective eyewear can prevent UV radiation's damaging effects on the eyes and reduce the risk of developing vision problems. Wrap-around sunglasses are a great option because they block both horizontal and vertical UV rays from reaching the cornea. Even if you’re not directly exposed to the sun, UV rays can still reach your eyes because the sun’s rays reflect off the surfaces that surround you. And while hats and visors can certainly reduce the UV rays that reach your eyes, they’re only part of the solution. Full protection can only be achieved by wearing sunglasses, and not just in summer but rather year-round.
The Vision Council's UV report, Picture This: A Lifetime of UV Eye Protection, provides a detailed, easy-to-understand look at the damage sun exposure can inflict on the eyes at every age—from childhood into the senior years, information about eye protection habits, how to better protect the eyes, and which sunglasses are right for you.
UV Danger Zones
While UV radiation can penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere anywhere, anytime, certain “danger zones” represent areas where there is increased risk for exposure. The map below shows the 25 U.S. cities receiving the highest UV concentration in 2013:
The Vision Council used data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Weather Service to map out the 25 U.S. cities with the highest UV concentration in 2012. More than 50 U.S. cities were analyzed for solar radiation strength, season, climatic conditions, ozone concentration, cloudiness and elevation. For daily UV index levels, visit The Vision Council’s website at www.missingsunglasses.com.
Click here for more information about choosing the correct pair of sunglasses.