Protect Your Eyes from the Sun’s Deadly UV Rays – Even in Winter!

In Australia, the country with the dubious honour of having the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, we are all keenly aware of the damage the sun can do. What we sometimes forget is that our eyes are equally at risk of sun damage. We also tend to forget that in winter the sun’s rays are still out there and that winter ultraviolet radiation (UVR) levels are just as deadly to our skin and you need to protect your eyes, just as you do in summer.

“According to Cancer Council Australia, each year over 300 Australians are diagnosed with eye and conjunctival cancers,” advises Dr Jan Coetzee, a Queensland optometrist. “What makes this so alarming is that simple measures, such as simply wearing close fitting sunglasses with approved UV-absorbing lenses and a wide-brimmed hat, can block about 95 per cent of harmful UV rays.” As the winter sun sits low in the sky, its rays hit the Earth at a shallow, direct angle. This alone markedly increases the glare off the sun’s surface and this glare can cause a range of eye disorders. As Australians tend to work and play outdoors a lot and this, combined with other risk factors, such as light skin and eye colour and family history of melanoma, contributes to very high levels of solar eye damage.

Dr Coetzee also reminds us that just like sun damage to the skin, the effects of sun exposure on the eyes is cumulative. “What this means is that each time you are exposed to the sun without protection, another ‘layer’ of UVR damage is caused and your risk of developing eye disorders is increased. That’s why it’s vital to ensure proper eye protection for children as well as adults. Current research shows that unhealthy sun exposure before the age of 20 will greatly increase chances of eye cancer in later life.”

Sun damage endangers your eyes and vision

So, next time you are lounging around the pool or working in the garden without sunglasses, remember that you are putting yourself at a very real risk of developing one or more of these alarmingly common eye disorders and diseases:

  • Increased sensitivity to strong light
  • Solar keratopathy (clouding of the cornea)
  • Photokeratitis (sunburn of the cornea)
  • Pterygium (a growth on the eye membrane over the cornea)
  • Cataracts (clouding of the eye lens, a leading cause of vision impairment)
  • Cancer of the eyelids (skin cancer)
  • Ocular melanoma (the most common primary cancer of the eye in adults)
  • Conjunctival cancer (the membrane over the whites of the eye)
  • Age-related macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in Australia).

Sunglass quality guide

Good eyecare starts with good quality. “There is no sense in buying yourself a cheap and pretty pair of fashion sunnies if it means in a few years’ time you could be blind,” cautions Dr Jan Coetzee. “A good quality pair of sunglasses is a non-negotiable and, with quality standards being so high in Australia, you won’t have to look far to find sunglasses that protect your eyes and make you look good at the same time.” Next time you visit your optometrist to browse for that perfect pair of shades, use these guidelines to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth:

  • Choose a pair of frames that sits close to your face with wide ‘temple arms’ to minimise UVR absorption – thicker frames, curved lenses or wraparound shades are ideal.
  • Your sunglasses should eliminate UVR and decrease visible light while still allowing you to see clearly.
  • Check the label for the category of lens according to the Australian/New Zealand standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 Sunglasses and Fashion Spectacle (ensure they are labelled ‘sunglasses’ and not ‘fashion spectacles’). The label will also state if a pair of sunglasses offers 100% UV protection.
  • Choose sunglasses with an Eye Protection Factor (EPF) of 9 or 10 (the EPF scale measures the level of UVR blocking protection from 1 to 10, with 10 exceeding AS/NZS 1067:2003 requirements).
  • If you plan to wear your sunnies while driving, check that they don’t bear a ‘must not be used for driving’ label and test them to ensure that colours are easily viewed through the lenses.
  • Sunglasses purchased online should still be labelled with the above information, as well as the identity of the manufacturer or supplier, lens category number, description and any additional info.
  • Lens colours such as red, grey, green or brown are best to avoid or minimise colour distortion, especially when driving; turquoise lenses are ideal for medium and high light; orange and yellow increase contrast and depth perception but do tend to distort colours; and blue/purple lenses are usually purely cosmetic. Remember that darker tints may reduce more visible light but this does not necessarily mean they are more effective at UVR reduction.
  • Plastic lenses are good for everyday use, being light, impact and UVR-resistant, with polycarbonate being optically superior to acrylic lenses. Glass lenses are scratch-resistant and offer optimal optical quality, but are heavier and risk shattering on impact. Polarized lenses are good for reducing surface-glare and eyestrain, although not suitable if requiring high-contrast visibility.

The UV-Index

“The first steps towards healthy vision are to invest wisely in good sunglasses, keep yourself informed about eye protection methods and take positive action to reduce any risk,” advises Dr Coetzee. “The Bureau of Meteorology issues a daily UV index forecast which shows UVR levels across the country, as well as UV alerts warning of pending UVR levels of 3 or higher, as these levels can irreparably damage you skin and eyes.” So make it a daily ritual to visit BOMs Ultraviolet (UV) Index Forecast at www.bom.gov.au/australia/uv/index.shtm and ensure you stay out of the sun on high risk days, or wear high protection sunglasses and use other sun smart measures if you do have to be outdoors.

Bottom line

The next time you are out and about on a winter’s day without sun protection or sunglasses of any kind, remember that the sun is still out there and ultraviolet radiation is not labelled the ‘silent killer’ for nothing. The familiar Sun Smart® slogan has been expanded to “slip-slop-slap-seek-slide” – so to be sun safe and not sorry, don’t forget to seek shade and slide on those sunnies too!

Sunglasses Guide

UV-absorption levels of all sunglasses/fashion spectacles must be tested and labelled according to the mandatory Australian/New Zealand standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 Sunglasses and Fashion Spectacles, comprising five categories of lenses:

Lens Category Description Other Info
Fashion spectacles – not sunglasses: very low sunglare reduction, some UVR protection. n/a
Fashion spectacles – not sunglasses: limited sunglare reduction, some UVR protection. Not suitable for driving at night
Sunglasses: medium sunglare reduction, good UV protection. n/a
Sunglasses: high sunglare reduction, good UV protection. n/a
Special purpose sunglasses: very high sunglare reduction, good UV protection. Not suitable for driving at night

Dr Coetzee holds a doctorate in optometry and is dedicated to raising awareness of eye health issues and providing high quality, protective eyewear. His practice, Insight Optometrists in Indooroopilly, western Brisbane, is also an accredited member of the Eyecare Plus group, a select collective of clinically-driven optometry practices across Australia.