What Happens If Your Eyes Get Sunburned?
Healthy Vision With Dr. Val
Healthy Vision With Dr. Val

Dr. Jones has found that there is a surprising lack of medical blogging about one particular body part: the eyes. Our eyes are incredibly important to our quality of life, and yet most of us mistakenly believe that if we see well, we can safely ignore those little globes.

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What Happens If Your Eyes Get Sunburned?

In the United States, skin cancers are more common than all other types of cancer combined. The dermatological community has done an excellent job educating the public about the dangers of sun exposure and the importance of sunscreens. But few people realize that their eyes also need protection from the sun. I recently interviewed dermatologist Jeanine Downie, and optometrist Stephen Cohen about the changes that occur in the skin and eyes when they are repeatedly exposed to the sun. Please listen to our fascinating conversation here, or in the player below.

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Just as the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays cause familiar changes in our skin (wrinkles, thinner skin, dark spots, dryness, larger pores, and even cancer), those rays can also cause changes in our eyes. UV-damaged eyes can appear dull, cloudy, or even discolored. The whites of the eyes may take on a reddish or yellowish appearance, and over time cataracts can develop. There are even certain growths that can appear as a result of UV damage, and they may cover parts of the iris (the colored part of the eye) and pupil.

Eyes, like skin, are vulnerable to sunburn, and a day at the beach without proper eye protection can leave you with stinging, red, dry eyes. Although the pain usually resolves within a few days, many years later that sun damage can cloud your vision, or even result in dangerous eyelid cancers. In fact, I recently saw a patient who has been battling melanoma of the eye lid. It has been very challenging to reconstruct her delicate lid area after the tumor was removed, and she has chronic dry eyes due to tear seepage. Her story serves as a critical reminder of the importance of protecting our eyes from the sun and I hope that this blog post will help you reduce your risk of skin cancers of the eye area.

Drs. Downie and Cohen provided some excellent tips with me for protecting our skin and eyes from the sun’s UV rays. I hope you’ll take them to heart, and share our podcast (it contains a more extensive explanation of how to apply these tips) with your friends and family.

Healthy Tips to Keep in Mind

1. Always wear sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 when you go outside. That goes for cloudy days (where 77% of UV rays still penetrate the clouds), early mornings and late afternoons, and for people of every skin tone.

2. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses during daylight hours to reduce UV exposure to the eyes and delicate skin around the eyes.

3. Apply about one ounce (or a shot glass full) of sunscreen to the adult body every two hours that your skin is exposed to the sun.

4. Wear UV-blocking contact lenses in conjunction with your sunglasses and hat! However, not all contact lenses offer UV protection and, in fact, most do not. ACUVUE® OASYS® Brand Contact Lenses offers the highest level of UV blocking available, blocking at least 90 percent of UV-A rays and 99 percent of UV-B rays. (Although there have been no definitive, long-term human studies confirming that UV-blocking contact lenses can reduce sun damage to the eyes, I personally feel that it makes good health sense to wear them.)

5. Make sure that kids and teens wear UV-blocking sunglasses when they are outdoors. Their eyes are at particular risk for sun damage because their pupils are generally more dilated and their eye tissues let in more light.

6. Remember that light-reflecting surfaces like snow, sand, and sea, can increase the intensity of UV radiation to the eyes. Take special care to use large, wrap-around sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats when you plan to be in those environments.

Disclosure: Dr. Val Jones is a paid consultant for VISTAKON® Division of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc.

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About the Author

Val Jones is passionate about preventative medicine, nutrition, exercise, and healthy vision.