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UV Light and what it does to your eyes

by Drew Whitehead, O.D.

With summer time fast approaching, temperatures are starting to soar and so is the sunshine.  As an eyecare practicioner, I commonly get asked about ultraviolet (UV) light and its effects on the eye. So here is a quick breakdown:

What is Ultraviolet light?

Ultraviolet light is a type of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun, but it is not visible to the human eye. The visible light spectrum that we are able to see ranges from 400-700 nanometers (Remember the colors of the rainbow, ROY-G-BIV?). UV light falls just below this spectrum in terms of wavelength and is classified into UV-A (315-400nm), UV-B (280-315nm), and UV-C (180-280nm).  UV-C is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, but UV-A and UV-B rays account for the damaging effects on the eye. Other sources of UV light to be aware of are tanning beds, welding machines and certain lasers.

What does UV do to the eye?

Most of us have heard all about the harmful effects of UV light and the elevated risks for skin cancer if you don’t wear sunscreen (Thank you to mothers everywhere).  Unfortunately, those harmful UV rays can pack quite the punch on the eyeball as well.

  • The skin around the eye and the eyelids are susceptible to UV damage. Exposure can cause skin cancers such as melanoma.
  • On the front of the eye, it is common here in South Texas to develop little growths on the white part of the eye called pingueculas. These benign growths are the direct result of UV exposure.
  • As UV light rays enter the eye, most get absorbed by the crystalline lens. This is the area of the eye where cataracts occur.  Lifetime exposure to UV increases the risk of cataract development.
  • In the back of the eye, UV light has been shown to increase the risk of developing macular degeneration, which is a sight-threatening condition.

Therefore, it is always a good idea to wear quality sunglasses when spending time outdoors. Talk to your optometrist or optician about your glasses and contacts, some of these lens materials block UV light.  Also, kids and teenagers typically spend more time in the sun than adults. UV exposure builds up over a lifetime, so protection at a young age can help guard against the negative effects of UV later in life.  Get your kids started in sunglasses now! (As a bonus, kids in sunglasses make for great Instagram material).

For more information on choosing Sunglasses, check for my next blog. Meanwhile, here is information on some of the models we carry.