Michael Cole, OD, Child and Family Eye Care Center
Last year, Cache Valley had the amazing opportunity to experience a near-total solar eclipse. Residents of our area experienced this celestial phenomenon without leaving home. This event brought an important topic to the center of our discussion: sun protection for the eyes. Eclipse glasses were a hot commodity for a few weeks, running out of stock as quickly as they could be delivered. After such an awesome experience, we should remember these important reminders about sun protection in our everyday lives.
The sun’s radiation is damaging enough to cause burns to both the external and internal parts of our eyes. Some of these injuries occur quickly, such as solar retinopathy from looking directly at the sun. Others, however, are derived from slow, repeated sun exposure over a lifetime. These include conditions such as cataracts, macular degeneration, and a fleshy growth on the surface of the eye called a pterygium.
Most of the time, harmful effects from UV radiation are not derived from staring directly at the sun (such as during the eclipse). Most people, even children, would avoid direct eye contact with the sun. We are not exposed to the sun’s radiation from a single direction, though. The sun reflects off everything around us: cars, windows, water, buildings, etc. Each of these reflections is damaging to our eyes. The most prominent and harmful reflections of sunlight come from horizontal, or flat outdoor surfaces. Think roadways after rain, lakes, and, especially for our area, snow.
Cache Valley natives know the difficulties of driving on a sunny day during winter. The glare from the sun’s reflection off the snow-covered ground is almost blinding. Because glare from these types of flat surfaces is so severe, a simple tinted lens is normally not adequate to calm the intensity of light. A tinted lens dark enough to make snow reflections tolerable would also make it difficult to navigate your surroundings. It is also interesting to note that most regular tinted lenses do NOT block UV light. The answer to this problem is polarized lenses.
Normally, light rays initiating from sources such as the sun scatter in all directions. Reflected light, however, has a single orientation and direction. Polarized lenses are unique because they only allow light of a specific orientation to pass through the lens, blocking the rest. By using this property of light, polarized lenses can completely eliminate glare originating from reflections on flat surfaces. Fishermen are well-aware of polarized lenses because they ensure glare-free viewing into the water when in search of fish. The benefits of polarized lenses extend to skiing, water sports, driving, and much more. Prescription eyewear can also be polarized, allowing for clear, comfortable vision no matter the outdoor activity you prefer.
There are great options to protect the eyes from harmful radiation in everyday prescription eyewear as well. High-quality, anti-reflective coatings are a must on modern lenses. The newest coatings not only reduce glare and improve vision, but also block UV light from reaching the eyes from the front of the lens and stop UV reflections off lenses into the eyes from the reverse side of the lens. Certain types of materials that ophthalmic lenses are crafted from, such as polycarbonate, inherently block UV light from passing through the lens. The newest generations of transitions lenses (which darken outside and become clear indoors) also block UV light when activated.
It is important to remember children need protection from the sun, too. All too often, we see families enjoying outdoor activities with mother and father wearing proper eyewear, but their children are wincing and squinting from the brightness of the sun around them. It is especially important to protect these young eyes as they develop, and it is up to parents to ensure that children are protected from the sun — not just with sunscreen, but with proper eyewear as well.