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The dangers of UV to the Eyes

What’s the Risk?

Given that the sun’s rays are the source for all life on earth, it is strange, but nonetheless true, that an aspect of them can be significantly detrimental to a person’s health. Ultraviolet radiation is simply one form of energy which comes from the sun, and its effects have been present in people’s health for all of recorded history, though any illuminating research has only taken place in recent decades.

What’s the Risk?

You may have already heard briefly of the harm done to you by UV rays, possibly believing, like many people, that cloudy days reduce the effects they have on you. Though this is true in some conditions, the weather can manipulate the potency of ultraviolet radiation in a variety of different ways. Depending on the type and density of the cloud, some overcast conditions may even amplify the harm caused by UV, by reflecting and refracting the sun’s rays.

Harm can also be caused unexpectedly when blanket cloud breaks to release a brief, intense torrent of unblocked ultraviolet energy. Another unfortunately common myth is built around the assumption that the temperature of the weather has a direct effect on how much or how little harm UV rays can cause, when there is actually no link at all.

Skiers can often neglect to take precautions against ultraviolet harm, believing the cold conditions will act as a block from damage, when in fact they are at more risk than most people, given the highly reflective surface of snow. Of course no one can go through life fully avoiding the negative symptoms of something as commonplace as sunlight, so it is important to build a decent understanding of it, and the necessary safeguards to keep its ill effects to a minimum. 

What is it?

ultraviolet radiation In its physical aspects, ultraviolet radiation is very similar to visible light, the main difference being that it does not allow us to see things.

Whereas visible light enables vision and is a kind of radiation composed of every shade of the rainbow, ultraviolet (as you may have guessed by its name) begins after the violet end of the spectrum. As far as the base science goes, UV is electromagnetic radiation, a group that includes light, radio and infrared signals.

Electromagnetic radiation travels in waves, which can be measured and identified by their wavelength, a factor which determines what kind of radiation it is. Different degrees of wavelength, and therefore, intensity, have a wide range of effects on humans; gamma radiation is used in cancer therapy whereas infrared radiation carries signals from a remote to a TV.

In modern times, it is hugely impractical if not impossible to completely avoid UV radiation, however there are some professions which may be at an increased risk to harm, due to the environment they work in or the equipment they are required to use. These professions include; outdoor workers, physiotherapists, plasma torch operators, welders, and many jobs in medicine and the agricultural industry. Further to this, many day to day items you may come into contact with emit UV. Though most of these produce only a small amount and are rarely detrimental to a person’s health, they should be avoided for long periods wherever possible. All high-energy UV rays can be divided into one of these three categories:

UVC: The highest energy UV rays, which in high concentrations can be particularly harmful to the eyes and skin. Serious damage from these rays is rare however, as the earth’s ozone layer blocks most of them.

UVB: These have slightly longer wavelengths and lower energy than UVC rays, which are weakened slightly by the ozone layer, but commonly reach the earth’s surface.

UVA: Much closer physically to visible light rays, and with significantly less energy than the other two categories. However, another trait setting them apart is that they can make it past the cornea of an eye, possibly damaging the lens and retina.

The Dangers

Though most of us have experienced sunburn at some point in our lives, or known someone with a slightly more serious condition, sunlight is much more dangerous than the common attitude would suggest. For example, melanoma is a sun-related cancer recently found to be the most common for women aged 25 to 29. The result of its damage has led to organizations across the world forming with the single focus of curing skin cancer. This and other serious conditions have led to many governments taking steps to raise awareness for the dangerous effects overexposure to sun can have. 



One of the more common conditions which can come out of overexposure to UV. Though painful it rarely leads to any serious long-term health problems. Sunburn develops when the exposure to UV is too great to be blocked by the skin’s melanin. A person’s natural melanin varies by skin tone; the lighter the skin, the more precautions a person should take against sunburn. Aside from this, all skin, no matter what the shade, reacts to overexposure to sunlight by growing hard and leather-like, which often leads to heavy wrinkles in later life.

Sunburn can be an even more serious threat if a person has moles, very fair skin and hair, or a genetic history of skin cancer in their family. Sunlight does not have any set level of UV intensity. This depends on the time of year and location in the world. As you have probably guessed, UV rays are strongest in the peak of summer, but when travelling to a notably hot climate, someone with an existing skin condition should always make sure they have taken that country’s seasonal calendar into account.

Skin Cancer

Medical studies from all parts of the world have shown conclusively that skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, and by no small margin. The diagnosis of skin cancer worldwide is in fact more common than that of lung, prostate, colorectal and kidney cancer combined.

In the UK alone, roughly 13,300 of every 100,000 people were diagnosed with melanoma in 2011. UV radiation has been found to be the most significant factor contributing to the development of skin cancer, and a sharp rise in incidence over the past few years has led scientists to blame a number of factors, such as a decrease in atmospheric ozone levels, the fact that less clothes are worn outdoors, and a general increase in outdoor leisure time. Skin cancers like melanoma are in fact easily preventable, but it is a common and unfortunate mistake to underestimate the damage exposure to UV radiation can cause.

Damage to the eyes

Sunlight is a main source of UV radiation which can cause damage to the tissues of a person’s eye. Countless studies have proven that spending a long time in the sun without eye protection can seriously increase the risk of contracting eye diseases, some of which have the possibility of leading to blindness. A recent study by the NHS has shown that in certain conditions even small amounts of sunlight can lead to permanent eye disorders. Many ophthalmology societies across the UK and other European countries have issued warnings on the increased possibility of developing cataracts if the eyes are overexposed to UV rays.

Cataracts are a condition which leads to a loss of transparency in the lens of the eye, clouding a person’s vision. Another possible problem UV light can contribute to is a condition called photokeratitis but commonly known as snow blindness, which burns the eye surface. The effects of snow blindness commonly fade after a day or two, but should not be taken trivially, as it can lead to more serious ailments later in life. However, all damage by rays in the UVB category is cumulative, so it is never too late to start maintaining the condition of your eyes. 


A staggering percentage of old-age cosmetic issues can be attributed to damage by sunlight. Overexposure to UV can irreparably change the texture of a person’s skin, and severely weaken the natural elastic properties of it. The epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin) commonly thickens, takes on a heavier feeling, and wrinkles due to overexposure to sunlight. The common contrast between a person’s skin tone, wrinkles and pigmentation on the upper and lower surfaces of their arms shows the effect UV rays have on the skin over time. This is especially apparent in people with particularly fair skin, where the visible results of sun damage is much more noticeable. Depending on the intensity of UV radiation and length of exposure, sun damage can lead to severe wrinkles and furrows, easy bruising in places, and possibly skin cancer. Again, the aging of the skin is cumulative, so it is advised to start protecting from this kind of harm regardless of your actual age. 

Immune system suppression

A few studies have led scientists to believe that sunburn can affect the mobility and function of white blood cells, a critical tool for the body to fight any disease, for up to 24 hours after exposure to the sun. Repeated overexposure may cause irreversible damage to the immune system, and sunburn can severely hinder its function in a certain area of the body.


This disease is caused by an inflammation of the cornea, closely related to photoconjunctivitis, which is instead an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the membrane that lines the eyelids and socket. These reactions are fairly similar to sunburn, though the effects are far more severe on the soft skin-like tissues found in the eye. Both conditions are reputed to be extremely painful, but are widely treated, and very rarely cause any considerable, permanent damage to the eye. The most extreme form of photokeratitis is commonly known as snow blindness. As the name suggests, snow blindness is commonly found in skiers and those who live or work in particularly cold conditions, due to the reflective surface of snow. Fresh snow can even reflect up to eighty percent of any UV radiation it comes into contact with. Such overexposure rapidly kills cells on the surface of the eye, and often leads to a temporary blindness, accompanied by an intense burning pain from the dead cells being shed. In most cases, the cells are quickly restored and vision will return in three to four days, however more severe cases can lead to chronic irritation or tearing. 


Though there is currently no conclusive evidence, this common cosmetic fault has been linked by some independent studies to UV overexposure. Pterygium is a growth on the conjunctiva, which can extend over the surface of the cornea and impair vision, and sometimes can become inflamed. Though it can be removed by surgery, it tends to reoccur once contracted.


Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world. They cause natural proteins in the eye’s lens to unravel, tangle and build up pigments. These pigments cloud the lens over time and eventually lead to blindness. Though cataracts are an unfortunate condition that often comes simply with age, their damaging effects can be enhanced by overexposure to UVB rays. However these can be surgically removed and methods such as laser correction or the insertion of an artificial lens can be used to restore eyesight. These are not exclusively attributed to overexposure to the sun, but various world medical organisations have published estimates that roughly twenty per cent of all identified cataracts could be caused by exposure to UV rays, and are therefore avoidable. 

Ocular Melanoma

Though more research is being done all the time, current medical thinking suggests that various cancers of the eye are linked to sun exposure. Melanoma is the most common malignant cancer found in the eyeball and can sometimes require surgery to treat. It is identifiable by the presence of a rare kind of tumour, the precise cause of which is unknown, but studies have indicated that overexposure to UV rays greatly increases the risk of it developing. Because the outcome of a cancer is always better the sooner it is diagnosed, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of such a serious condition if you think your eyes may be too exposed. They include blurred vision, erratic, flashing lights, and shadows in the fluid of the eye. Some ocular melanoma patients experience none of the early signs, but it can often be identified through a routine optician’s check-up. Although these symptoms are attributed to other, less serious eye issues, it is important to mention them to your optician or specialist as soon as you start noticing them. The diagnosis procedure for ocular melanoma is often brief and painless, but in some circumstances a small tissue sample may need to be taken.


The best defence from all UV-related conditions affecting the eye is to wear a high-quality pair of sunglasses whenever you are outside. Some concerned with the damage of UV rays have often practiced alternatives, but even contact lenses specifically designed to block UV have been proven to shield only part of the eye, excluding the conjunctiva, a section integral to sight. Though light may appear more garish or faint through different colours and tints, the shade of sunglasses’ lenses does not affect how much UV protection they offer. If you are looking to prevent as much UV damage as possible, it is advised that you look for a pair which blocks 100 per cent of UV rays and can absorb large concentrations of HEV rays. Also, for extra assurance, it is wise to buy sunglasses with large lenses, or in a close-fitting wraparound style. If you are unsure just how much protection you require, a quick test with your optician can determine how serious the threat is, and answer any questions you may have. Among the many things most people forget when trying to avoid UV damage is to wear sunglasses even when they are in the shade.

Although shade does filter some UV and HEV energy, your eyes can still be exposed to radiation reflected by windows and other such surfaces. By the same token, it is also important to remember that sunglasses are especially necessary in winter, in the incidence of highly reflective fresh snow, which can lead to such conditions as the previously explained snow blindness. As a defence from this ailment, most modern skiwear companies produce ski goggles with tinted lenses. Unlike the risk of skin-related disease, having naturally dark eyes or skin does not protect someone any more from ocular damage from UV, and sunglasses are recommended regardless of these physical aspects. Similar to sunscreen, if you are vulnerable to UV damage, sunglasses should be worn whenever you’re outdoors and all year round, a rule especially important for children with developing sight. Though these observations may seem a little excessive, when practiced correctly, a decent pair of sunglasses can protect from a long list of UV-related conditions.

What to look for in sunglasses

The fundamental traits to look for when first picking out a pair of sunglasses are certifying guarantees printed on the frames; the ‘CE’ mark and British Standard, a ‘UV 400’ label, and a statement that the glasses offer at least 99% ultraviolet protection. Second on the list should be a style protecting not only the centres of your eyes, but the sides too, such as a pair with wide or wraparound arms. Although the colour of the lenses does not affect how much UV is blocked, it can be important choice given how certain hues can severely distort colour perception.

For example, sunglasses with a red or amber tint can make the change of traffic lights hard to notice. To minimize such inconvenient and potentially dangerous confusions, it is recommended you find a pair with a green, grey or brown tint for day-to-day use. Some people may want to opt for polarized lenses, which filter the amount of glare reflected from the surface of water or pavement. These are especially popular with people who partake in water sports, or work on boats. Though the protection polarized lenses can offer is adequate, a main disadvantage is that the heavy tint can make it difficult to read displays such as mobile phone and Sat Nav screens. Be aware that polarized lenses do not necessarily guarantee any UV protection, so always check the sunglasses’ packaging or label.

When browsing, do not assume that a pair of sunglasses boasting a higher price is therefore the best for your needs. Whether looking at the range of a high-end designer label or your local supermarket, it should not take too long to find a pair both protective and complimentary to the rest of your wardrobe. While leading eye care experts agree unanimously that price has absolutely no indication of effectiveness in protecting the eyes against UV rays, however, noticeably cheap glasses are universally likely to have poorly made lenses stamped out of a mould, rather than ones which have been professionally crafted and polished, which can have a negative impact on the quality of vision. When in doubt, a quick test can show the level quality in this area. Simply concentrate on a straight, vertical line wearing the sunglasses you are trying on, and move your head gently forwards and backwards, letting your focus move freely over the whole area of the lenses. If there appears to be any ripple or distortion in the line, the glasses may have an optical defect and should be avoided. Another factor mostly irrelevant to how well-protected your eyes are from UV is how well the pair rests on your face. The frame should sit comfortably on your nose and ears without rubbing or causing irritation with too much movement. The pair should sit fairly close to your eyes, in order to protect from light coming from overhead, but not so close that they restrict the movement of your eyelashes when you blink.

Further Resources on The Dangers of UV to the Eyes:

EHS Safety Training - What is ultraviolet radiation (UV)?

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety - Ultraviolet Radiation.

All About Vision - Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation and Your Eye.

EHS Safety Training - Sun Safety - Effects of Sunlight.

World Health Organization - Ultraviolet radiation and the INTERSUN Programme - The known health effects of UV.

Observatory the Opticians - Effects of Ultraviolet (UV) Light on the Eye.

WebMD - Eye Health Center - Pterygium (Surfer’s Eye) and Pinguecula.

We are Macmillan - Cancer Support - Ocular melanoma (melanoma of the eye).

NHS Choices - Protect your skin and eyes in the sun.

Eyecare America - The Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology - Sunglasses.

WebMD - Eye Health Center - How to Pick Good Sunglasses - Here's tips for choosing shades that will protect your eyes from the sun's harmful effects.

Health Physics Society - Ultraviolet Radiation

American Cancer Society - Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection - What is ultraviolet (UV) radiation?

Wise Geek - What Is UV Light?

How Stuff Works - UV Radiation 101 - Dangers of UV Radiation.

World Health Organization - Ultraviolet radiation and the INTERSUN Programme - Health effects of UV radiation.

Princeton Edu - Section E4: ultra-violet light safety.

Newton - Ask a Scientist - UV Light Dangers

American Optometric Assocation - UV Protection - Protecting Your Eyes from Solar Radiation.

Prevent Blindness - Protect Your Eyes from the Sun.

Environmental Health and Safety - University of Washington - Hazards of Ultraviolet Light.

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