After years of persistent studies demonstrating the significant risk UV rays pose to people’s health, particularly regarding the diagnosis of melanoma and other skin cancers, most parents are careful to make sure their children are properly protected from the sun. However, few parents require their children to wear sunglasses the same way they ensure that they wear sunscreen. Unfortunately, vision-care experts are reporting that this can have a number of consequences, resulting in cumulative and irreversible damage to the eye.
Unlike adults, the ocular lenses of children and adolescents are immature and therefore unable to filter UV light effectively, causing damage to the retina. Because of this, the average child absorbs around three times the UV exposure of an adult every year. Unsurprisingly, an estimated 25% of a person’s lifetime UV exposure occurs before age 18 for this reason. This UV exposure can have a number of effects on the eye, including cancer of the eye or eyelid, an increased risk of cataracts, clouding of the eye’s lens, and macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in adults. Studies show that people with lighter-colored eyes are especially prone to UV damage, increasing their chances of developing one of these conditions.
Damage to the eye can be easily prevented by wearing sunglasses, or even a hat or a visor, to prevent sun exposure. However, studies conducted by the Vision Council and the American Academy of Ophthamology show that less than half of parents require their children to wear sunglasses. This can lead to a great deal of damage when children play outside, especially if they are around water, sand, and snow, which can reflect UV rays into the eye, causing a condition called photokeratitis, or sunburn of the eye, which can cause temporary blindness. Likewise, many teenagers are developing sunburn on their eyelids, which can also cause eye problems, after using tanning beds without eye protection.
“Most children are outside much more than adults are, and their young developing eyes are most susceptible to the increase in harmful UV rays that we are seeing in today’s world,” says Craig Anderson, CEO of The Sunglass Fix. “Children don’t understand the risks involved with UV rays, so as parents we need to explain to them the importance of wearing sunglasses just like wearing a hat or sunscreen. Children that do not wear sunglasses and other UV protection are at increased risks of issues such as macular degeneration, skin cancer, premature aging, and other issues related to UV exposure.”
To adequately protect against sun damage, vision experts recommend sunglasses designed to block 100% of the UV spectrum, including both UVA and UVB rays. They also suggest purchasing wraparound styles, which fit closely to the face and can prevent exposure from above or around the sides of the frame. There are also glasses specifically designed for younger children that come with straps and can also help protect against irritants, such as sand and wind. Parents are also encouraged to be aware of the times at which there is the greatest chance for UV damage to the eyes: typically from 8 a.m to 10 p.m. and 2 p.m., during which different angles cause eyes to receive almost twice the amount of UV rays. By taking care to protect their child’s eyes with sunglasses or a visor, during these times especially, parents will be able to prevent possible vision problems and cancer.