Crow’s feet aren’t the only things you can get from years of squinting into the sun. If you’re not regularly protecting your eyes from sun damage, your risk of cataracts, macular degeneration, and other eye conditions that cause temporary or permanent vision loss is only increasing.
No matter what your age or eye color, you should make a habit of sporting sunglasses with high-quality lenses—and yes, the quality of your lenses does make a big difference.
Find out which rays are the most harmful to your eyes, when you’re most at risk, and if your sunglasses are providing enough UV protection.
Types of Light You Should Worry About
Almost all sunglasses boast UV protection, but they should provide some HEV protection as well. Lenses with UV protection block your eyes from ultraviolet radiation, a type of high-energy invisible light that is extremely harmful to your retina over time. Your sunglasses should block no less than 100 percent of UV rays.
Visible light wavelengths, such as HEV rays, have less energy but can still cause retinal damage. HEV rays (also referred to as blue light) are the short wavelengths of light responsible for making the sky look blue. It wasn’t until recently that research revealed some of this lovely blue light is harmful to your eyes. This, unfortunately, means that it’s still hard to find sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection and close to 100% HEV protection. Maui Jim is one of the few eyewear brands that makes lenses that filter out 95% of the damaging blue light.
Who’s Most at Risk
We’re all at risk from UV and HEV rays, yet it’s still a common misconception that people with dark-colored eyes don’t need to wear sunglasses. Although people with darker skin and darker eyes are at a lower risk of skin cancer, their risk of eye damage is the same as people with light-colored eyes.
Kids especially, regardless of eye color, need to wear sunglasses because the lens inside a child’s eye is more transparent than an adult lens. This means that more UV radiation can penetrate deep into the eye. The risk of sun damage is also cumulative, so the sooner you prevent the damage, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
When to Wear Sunglasses
We’ve established that it’s beneficial for all of us, especially children, to wear sunglasses during the daytime, but there are a variety of external factors that affect the risk of sun damage. The following factors, courtesy of All About Vision, will help you understand when and where UV and HEV protection is most important:
- Geographic location. UV levels are greater in tropical areas near the earth’s equator. The farther you are from the equator, the smaller your risk.
- Altitude. UV levels are greater at higher altitudes.
- Time of day. UV and HEV levels are greater when the sun is high in the sky, typically from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Setting. UV and HEV levels are greater in wide open spaces, especially when highly reflective surfaces are present, like snow and sand. Snow can reflect 80 percent of UV rays, nearly doubling your overall exposure to solar UV radiation, so make sure your goggles provide enough protection. In fact, UV exposure can nearly double when UV rays are reflected from the snow. UV exposure is less likely in urban settings, where tall buildings shade the streets.
- Medications. Certain medications, such as tetracycline, sulfa drugs, birth control pills, diuretics and tranquilizers, can increase your body’s sensitivity to UV and HEV radiation.
- Cloud Cover. Your risk of UV exposure can be quite high even on hazy or overcast days. This is because UV is invisible radiation, not visible light, and can penetrate clouds.
- Shade Cover. Even when you’re in the shade, UV rays can reflect off buildings, water, roadways, and other surfaces. While wearing a hat and staying out of the sun does help protect your skin from sun damage, it doesn’t prevent UV rays from reaching your eyes.
Your Best Lens Options for UV Protection
As we stated before, the quality of your lens matters when it comes to UV and HEV protection. While most regular glasses and contacts do block some UV rays, they do not provide adequate protection when you’re outdoors, especially during peak daylight hours. For the most protection, choose larger sunglasses with a wrap fit. This style not only fully protects your eyes but also the delicate skin right around your eyes.
Currently, frames with flatter lenses are in vogue, so if you choose this style of frame, make sure to put an anti-glare coating on the backside of the lens. This cuts the glare from behind, protecting your eyes and skin and improving the clarity of your vision in bright environments.
Polycarbonate lenses block 100 percent of UV rays, making it a great lens material option for both your sunglasses and regular glasses. Plastic lenses can also block 100 percent of UV rays, but only if they have an additional UV-blocking coating. Unfortunately, many cheap sunglasses use a material called triacetate which absorbs only about 40 percent of the UV rays.
To learn more about lens materials, read How to Choose the Best Eyeglass Lenses for Your Lifestyle.
All polarized lenses, regardless of the material, block 100 percent of UV rays and often provide a higher quality of vision and comfort on both sunny and overcast days. This type of lens is best at cutting glare, especially out on the water.
Like any other lens type though, not all polarized lenses are created equal. If you want to be sure your polarized lenses are protecting your vision to the fullest, we recommend Maui Jim. Their entire line is endorsed by the American Skin Cancer association. (Come check out our wide selection of Maui Jim frames and see the difference for yourself!)
Lens color actually doesn’t matter for blocking UV rays, but it does matter for blocking HEV rays. Bronze, copper, or reddish-brown tints typically block the most HEV rays. Some lens manufacturers now offer polarized gradient tints, a great option for vision protection and sharp optics in both the sun and shade. For the most part, lens color is a personal preference, both in terms of style and perceptions of color, brightness, and contrast.
Not sure what percentage of UV and HEV rays your sunglasses are blocking? Bring them to your optician and she or he can let you know how much protection they’re providing. A good rule of thumb is to always purchase your sunglasses from reputable brands, specialty sunglass stores, or from an optical professional.
Related posts: Why One Eyewear Prescription is Never Enough