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Wellness & Prevention

Ewa Czuper of Chicago wears sunglasses daily to protect her eyes and avoid UV rays, even for a quick stroll down Lincoln Avenue.

Sunglasses: A fashionable necessity

Learn why shades are important for eye protection
By Anne E. Stein
Contributing writer
Ewa Czuper of Chicago wears sunglasses daily to protect her eyes and avoid UV rays, even for a quick stroll down Lincoln Avenue.

In the 1950s, actor James Dean made Wayfarer sunglasses famous, and in the 1960s, Jackie O’s dark, oversized shades were incredibly chic and still endure today. But sunglasses aren’t just a fabulous accessory; they’re a necessity for children and adults to avoid impaired vision in the future. 

Just as you apply sunscreen to protect your skin, say eye experts, you should wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV (ultraviolet, an invisible form of radiation) and HEV (high-energy visible, also called ‘blue light’) rays.

“Everyone should wear sunglasses during summer and winter, especially kids,” says Dr. Han Lim, an ophthalmologist at Swedish Covenant Hospital. “Damage from exposure to UV rays is cumulative, and can cause macular degeneration (a serious disease that results in the loss of central vision) and cataracts (a clouding of the lens that makes vision similar to looking through a dirty window) later.”

Invisible, damaging rays
There are two categories of UV radiation to be aware of, explains Dr. Lim:

UVA rays can penetrate the cornea and damage the lens and retina. These rays are implicated in causing certain types of cataracts and are linked to macular degeneration.

UVB rays cause wrinkles, suntan and premature aging of the skin. UVB rays can also cause overgrowths of abnormal tissue on the eye. UVB rays reflecting off of snow can also cause photokeratitis, a painful condition that can occur if you ski without sunglasses, or in severe cases, temporary vision loss — or “snow blindness.”

While UVC rays are the highest-energy UV rays, they’re currently filtered out by the ozone layer and are not a cause for concern because very few reach us. 

“A common misconception is that you don’t need sunglasses on cloudy days,” says Lim. “But you have some UV rays on a cloudy day, so you’ll want to wear sunglasses whenever you go outside.”  

Regular eyeglasses, says Lim, will block out most UV rays, but unless you get UV coating when purchasing glasses, you won’t get 100 percent protection. In addition, you’ll still squint in bright sunlight and the skin around your eyes will be unprotected. Contact lens wearers can also get UV-protective lenses, but this only protects the cornea, lens and retina, so you’ll want to wear sunglasses, too.

What to look for when buying your shades
There are thousands of lens colors and styles to choose from, but following a few simple guidelines should help when buying sunglasses.

First, if you spend a lot of time outdoors, consider wraparound sunglasses, which cover more of the skin and have a wide lens that curves and wraps around the eyes.

“Regular frames still allow UV radiation into the eye. Wraparounds minimize that exposure,” says Lim.

Polarized lenses block intense, reflected light and are the best way to reduce reflected glare. They’re also most comfortable for your eyes, Lim says. Sunglasses will have a label indicating whether they’re polarized.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology also offers these tips:

  • Don’t focus on the color or darkness of sunglass lenses. Select sunglasses that block UV rays. The ability to block UV light is not dependent on the price tag or lens color.
  • Be careful of purchasing sunglasses that state they “block UV” without saying how much. Some labels say “UV protection up to 400nm” — this means 100 percent UV absorption, which is ideal.
  • Wear a hat: In addition to your sunglasses, wear a broad-brimmed hat to protect your eyes.
  • Everyone is at risk, including children. Protect their eyes with hats and sunglasses. In addition, try to keep children out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest.

Photo by Iwona Biedermann.