The sun is an essential part of our planet—without sunlight, life on Earth cannot exist. Solar energy (heat and light) is necessary, but it can be dangerous for our eye health.
As concerns over global climate change grow, it’s important to be aware of these eye health issues and protect our eyes from sun damage.
What are Ultraviolet and Blue Light?
The sun radiates different types of energy, which include:
- Infrared radiation (55%) is the heat you feel on a sunny day.
- Ultraviolet (UV) light (40%) is invisible but can harm your health. UVA and UVB are the two types of UV that damage our skin and eyes.
- Visible light (5%) allows you to see colors but can also threaten your eye health. Specifically, short, high-energy wavelengths of visible light (also known as blue light) can penetrate the deeper structures of the eye.
Below, we’ll review several eye conditions that result from UV and blue light exposure.
How Does Sun Exposure Affect Your Eyes?
The sun can affect many structures, from the front to the back of our eyes. Some eye conditions that result from sun damage are:
Photoaging of the Skin
Photoaging is premature skin aging from excessive UV light. The skin around your eyes is particularly vulnerable because it’s thin and delicate. Over time, the damage results in the following:
- Wrinkles (such as crow’s feet and bags under the eyes)
- Pigmentation (like sun spots and freckles)
- Redness and blotchiness of the skin
- Uneven skin texture
- Loss of skin elasticity
The primary prevention method is using sunscreen and sunglasses to protect the skin around your eye area. Your dermatologist can recommend topical treatments, lasers, injectable medications, and other therapies to address these concerns.
Eyelid and Eye Cancers
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common cancer worldwide and comprises 90% of eyelid cancers. This cancer typically occurs on the central part of the lower eyelid.
Although it’s rare for eyelid BCCs to spread beyond the eye and into other body areas, they can grow back. The main treatment is surgical removal, such as Mohs micrographic surgery.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common cancer in the United States. SCC tends to grow more rapidly than BCC. Although SCC can be fatal if it spreads throughout the body, metastasis is rare.
These eyelid cancers often occur in areas exposed to the sun, so sunscreen and sunglasses are essential.
Signs of eyelid cancer may include:
- Scaly, red, or brown patches on the skin
- Smooth, shiny, red bump on the eyelid
- A recurrent stye that doesn’t heal
- Loss of eyelashes
- Open sore that bleeds or has crusting
Pinguecula and Pterygium
These are benign growths on the conjunctiva (clear tissue covering the whites of the eye). A pinguecula looks like a small yellow bump, while a pterygium looks like a wedge of tissue growing on the conjunctiva. Although these lesions typically do not affect your vision, increased UV exposure (especially UVB) can cause them to grow.
People who spend significant time outdoors and engage in water or snow activities are more likely to have a pinguecula or pterygium. Reflective surfaces such as water and snow cause sunlight to reflect into your eyes.
The primary treatment is to wear sunglasses outdoors and use lubricating drops if your eyes feel irritated. A surgeon can remove the growth if a pterygium becomes large enough to affect your vision.
Photokeratitis is a sunburn in your cornea (clear covering over the front of the eye) from too much UV exposure. Symptoms of photokeratitis include pain, light sensitivity, redness, and eyelid swelling.
This condition goes away within a few days, provided you temporarily avoid sun exposure and wear sunglasses outdoors. In addition, your eye doctor may recommend lubricating drops, cool compresses, and over-the-counter pain medication to help relieve symptoms.
Cataracts are the clouding of the crystalline lens inside your eye. Normally, this lens is clear and helps to focus light, so you see clearly.
Cataracts are primarily associated with older age, but excessive UV exposure can cause early onset or progression of cataracts. Research indicates that UVA and blue light induce changes in lens proteins through oxidative stress. The proteins then clump together, which makes the lens hazy and blurs your vision.
Fortunately, cataract surgery is a standard procedure that removes the cataract and restores clear vision via an artificial lens implant.
Age-related Macular Degeneration
Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) damages the macula (central part of the retina), the sensory tissue lining the back of the eye that helps you see fine detail and color. AMD is influenced by age (typically in people over 50), genetics, smoking, systemic diseases, and sun exposure.
Although the cornea and lens absorb a large portion of UV light, blue light penetrates these structures to reach the retina. Blue light can then damage the pigmented layer of the retina and photoreceptors, cells that sense light and allow for color vision.
Mild forms (dry AMD) typically cause little to no visual symptoms. 90% of people with AMD have dry form. However, wet AMD, a more severe form, caused bleeding in the macula and decreased vision. Wet AMD requires medication injected into the eye.
It's just as crucial to shield your eyes from UV rays from the sun and other sources as it is to use sunscreen on your skin. A good set of 100% UV-protective sunglasses is the best way to shield your eyes. You can find those at your nearby Eye Care office.
Your chance of getting a cataract or macular degeneration increases if you are exposed to UV radiation for an extended period, even in small doses.
If and how much damage to your eyes has already happened can be ascertained by an ophthalmologist (a physician specializing in eye conditions).
Wear sunglasses or other UV-blocking or UV-absorbing eye protection whenever you're outside (even on cloudy days) or exposed to specific work-related light sources.
Although it is uncommon for sun damage to result in total blindness, there is a real risk of vision loss or even temporary blindness.
Laser surgery, medications, and other therapies can often restore or enhance eyesight impairment.
International Journal of Ophthalmology. Research progress about the effect and prevention of blue light on eyes.
Journal of Biological Chemistry. UVA light-excited kynurenines oxidize ascorbate and modify lens proteins by forming advanced glycation end products: implications for human lens aging and cataract formation.
Moran CORE. Eyelid Masses.
OncoTargets and Therapy. Ocular basal cell carcinoma: a brief clinical diagnosis and treatment literature review.