Looking for the perfect pair of summer sunnies? Fashion experts have plenty of advice about what styles look best on whom. But instead of finding sunglasses that are right for our faces, we should be getting what’s right for our eyes.
Don’t underestimate the power of the sun, warn the region’s top ophthalmologists. At issue are UVA and UVB rays that can harm eyes and their surrounding skin. “Most people have gotten diligent about applying sunscreen to avoid skin cancer,” says Dr. A. Vijay Mudgil of Mudgil Eye Associates in West Chester. “Did you look at the UV blockage before you bought your sunglasses? Probably not.”
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin around the eyes is as susceptible to cancer as other areas of the body. Dr. Ralph Sando Jr., chief of ophthalmology at Bryn Mawr Hospital and director of Philadelphia Ophthalmology Associates in Ardmore and Center City, has treated patients with eye cancer. “The risk of getting melanomas on your eyelids is about the same as elsewhere on your skin,” he says.
The Skin Cancer Foundation’s reports show that melanomas and carcinomas account for 5-10 percent of all skin cancers—a big percentage for a small area of the body. It gets worse: Nonmelanoma skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, have the highest incidence rates of all cancers in the United States.
The Skin Cancer Foundation’s study showed that most cancerous growths—a whopping 44 percent—develop on the lower eyelid. That’s not the eye’s lower border; it’s the skin directly below the lower eyelashes. But don’t put sunscreen there or on the upper eyelids, Sando says. “It’ll diffuse through your eyelid skin, which is very thin, and burn your eyes,” he warns. “Sunglasses are the best protection.”
Or they would be, if folks wore the right kind. The rising rate of lower-lid skin cancer illustrates the problem. Theoretically, sunglasses should cover the entire eye, including that lower eyelid area. Wraparounds are the most protective, but oversized Jackie O sunglasses are a decent alternative. Generally speaking, the smaller the lenses, the worse the protection.
Skin cancers aren’t the only problems associated with sun exposure. UV rays can damage the pupil itself, and pingueculae are little, yellowish bumps that appear in the white part of eyes. The result of cell damage from UV light, they typically emerge in the corners of eyes, at 3 and 9 o’clock, Sando says. When a pinguecula grows across the cornea, it becomes a pterygium, also known as surfer’s eye. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, UV rays and exposure to wind, sand or dust cause pterygia.
Sando has removed many pterygia from beach lovers’ eyes. “It can be a cosmetic issue that develops into a vision issue,” he says. “If the pterygium gets big enough, it can cause astigmatism. If it grows far enough in towards the cornea, patients can have scarring that may leave them with permanently decreased vision.”
Wearing the right sunglasses can go a long way toward preventing all of these sun-related eye problems. No matter the style, sunglasses should block 99-100 percent of UVA and UVB rays. Some labels may say UV 400, a measurement in nanometers that encompasses A and B rays. Regular prescription glasses can be made with UV protection, too. “You need to protect against those rays, even on cloudy days,” Mudgil says. “UVA can penetrate clouds and glass.”
The doctors warn against some commonly held myths. For starters, UV blockage has nothing to do with the shade of the sunglasses. “Darker lenses don’t automatically provide more UV protection,” says Dr. Michael Negrey of Negrey Eye Associates in Havertown and Media.
Similarly, no one color is better than another. Rose, yellow, blue—all tints require UV blockage to effectively protect eyes. And then there’s the
misconception that polarized lenses are good for eye health. “Polarized lenses cut down on sun glare, which is nice but doesn’t protect the eyes more,” Negrey says.
UV rays have also been implicated in increasing the risk of macular degeneration and cataract growth, although lifestyle factors and genetics are thought to be bigger contributors. Genetics also plays a role in eye color, and Mudgil says blue-eyed people need to be extra careful about protecting themselves from UV rays. “Blue eyes have less pigment and tend to be more light sensitive than darker eyes,” he says. “Blue eyes are often associated with greater risk of certain eye diseases, including a higher risk of macular degeneration.”
All of the doctors agree that kids need to wear proper sunglasses, too. Even babies’ eyes need protection from the sun, they advise.