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The sun and your eyes

Tuesday 08 May 2018

Sun Awareness Week is an initiative run every year in May by the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD). The campaign combines prevention and detection advice, encouraging people to regularly self-examine for skin cancer, and teaching people about the dangers of sunburn and excessive tanning. This year the event will run from May 14th–20th, and we thought we would do our bit by looking at the effect sun can have on your eyes.

As children, we learn quickly that looking directly at the sun causes discomfort and leaves us with watering eyes and a visible “spot” where the sun has burned its fiery imprint into our eyeball’s memory. But what are the real dangers? Not surprisingly, the key factor is how long we look at the sun for. In the short term, your eyeball begins to get sunburnt. The symptoms start to manifest themselves a few hours after the event, and can include inflammation of the skin around the eye and uncontrollable eye-watering. As long as the exposure was only short, these unpleasant effects will only be temporary.

Stare at the sun for a little longer, however, and it can be a very different story. It is very easy for the infra-red rays of the sun’s light to damage the retina – literally “frying” it - which sounds painful but in fact it is often not painful at all. However, damage to the retina can be permanent, and can result in partial or even completer blindness.

There is also a risk associated with long-term exposure of the eye to the sun’s rays. The eye’s lens can react adversely to too much UV light, which can lead to cataracts and aberrant tissue growth known as pterygium. If left untreated, these UV induced cataracts can obscure vision and leave a person blind. What about when we are simply out in the sun and wearing sunglasses? The key here is making sure you apply sun cream all around the eye area. Research from Liverpool University has revealed that, when skiing, on average people missed 9.5% of their faces when applying sunscreen, with the most commonly missed areas being the eyelids and the area between the bridge of the nose and the eye. This is of particular concern, as between 5-10% of all skin cancers occur on the eyelids.

When we go skiing, the risks increase, as there is less atmospheric protection from UV radiation. In addition, snow glare reflects even more of the harmful rays back onto our faces.

So what should we do to minimise the risk? Dr Kevin Hamill writes:”A thoroughly-applied sunblock of at least SPF 30 is a good start but isn't enough. You need to make sure that you take your cream to the slopes and reapply at regular intervals. You also need to wear goggles or sunglasses. Wrap around frames that protect the whole eye area and have 100% UV protection are ideal."

Sources:

  1. The British Association of Dermatologists:
    un Awareness.

  2. University of Liverpool News:
    Misapplication of sunscreen leaves people vulnerable to skin cancer..

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