Eye protection in the sun

Our eyes are very sensitive and easily damaged by the sun. Find out what you can do to reduce this risk for both yourself and your family.

Eyes and the sun

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause damage to the eyes and the sensitive skin around them. Wearing sunglasses - that meet standards for UV protection - and broad-brimmed hats will help protect your eyes. These measures are very important when you are near reflective surfaces such as water, sand and snow.

If you wear prescription glasses, you should talk to your optometrist about tints or prescription sunglass options.

Temporary effects on eyes

Acute exposure to too much UV radiation can cause temporary effects which usually go away within 48 hours. These include:

  • mild irritation
  • feeling there is something in the eye
  • photoconjunctivitis – inflammation of the conjunctiva
  • photokeratitis – known as ‘snow blindness’, which causes inflammation of the cornea and is like sunburn of the eye.

Long-term effects

Regular exposure to too much UV radiation can cause serious damage to the eyes including:

  • increased risk of cataracts – clouding of the lens
  • pterygium – a white or creamy fleshy growth on the surface of the eye
  • rarely, cancer of the cornea or conjunctiva
  • basal cell carcinoma (skin cancer) of the skin surrounding the eye.

Hats and sunglasses help protect eyes

When outside, there are two key things you can do to protect your eyes and that of your families.

  1. Wear a hat - a broad-brimmed hat can reduce the amount of UV radiation reaching the eyes by around 50%.
  2. Wear UV protective sunglasses - make sure your sunglasses provide UV protection. The level of protection against UV radiation will depend on the type of lens and the style of sunglasses. 

Choosing sunglasses

Choose sunglasses that meet the Australia/New Zealand Standard for Sunglasses and fashion spectacles (AS/NZS 1067:2003). Check the label or ask the retailer whether the sunglasses meet this standard.

To protect your eyes from UV radiation which can pass round the edge of sunglasses, choose ones that are close-fitting, wrap-around and meet the sunglasses standard. The colour of the lens does not relate to the amount of protection against UV radiation the sunglasses give, so check the label for the protection level.

Wearing sunglasses in combination with a broad-brimmed hat (minimum 7.5cm brim) or bucket hat (deep crown, minimum 6cm brim) can reduce the amount of UV radiation that reaches the eyes by up to 98%.

What about prescription glasses?

If you wear prescription glasses, there are several options to protect your eyes. These include:

  • having a UV protective treatment when your glasses are made
  • having photochromic (transition) lenses which are clear indoors but darken in response to sunlight
  • having prescription sunglasses made
  • wearing protective sunglasses over your prescription glasses.

Wear sunglasses if you have contact lenses.

Children and sunglasses

Sunglasses are available for children. Check they meet the sunglasses standard and that they will stay on securely. Children’s fashion or toy glasses should not be used to protect children’s eyes from UV radiation as they do not provide an adequate level of protection.

Children should be encouraged to wear a sunhat while playing outside. A legionnaire, broad-brimmed (minimum 7.5cm brim) or bucket (minimum 6cm brim) hat provides considerable protection for the eyes. When around very reflective surfaces (such as water or snow), it is extremely important for children’s eyes to be protected.

Eye protection for outdoor workers

Wear sunglasses/goggles that meet the Australia/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS 1067:2003). If you require safety sunglasses/goggles to protect your eyes, check that they provide protection against UV radiation. If you will be working in full sunlight or near highly reflective surfaces, tinted safety glasses will usually be required.

Reflected UV radiation

As well as UV radiation from the sky, it is reflected off many surfaces. Sand will reflect about 15% of UV radiation, surf about 25% and fresh snow about 80%. Remember to wear sunglasses when in snow, at the beach, around water or sand (eg, when boating and/or fishing).

The Ultraviolet Index (UVI)

The Ultraviolet Index (UVI) is an international, scientific measure of the level of UV radiation in the environment. The higher the number, the greater the risk of skin damage. The Cancer Society advises sun protection between September and April (especially between 10am and 4pm) or when the UVI is 3 or above.  Cover up with a hat and protective clothing; wear sunglasses if possible; and use sunscreen on exposed skin.

UVI levels can be found on the NIWA website. Also check out the Sun Protection Alert on the MetService website or in the weather section of your daily newspaper. The Sun Protection Alert includes local real time advice (ie, about what times of day protection is needed).

Credits: provided by the Cancer Society of New Zealand, October 2011. Latest update Health Navigator June 2015.