Find the best defence against sun damage
The sun can be incredibly damaging to our eyes. During the summer months, it's essential to provide our eyes with proper protection. From sunglasses to supplements to sun-savvy, find out how to keep your peepers safe.
Surfing our coasts. Hiking our mountains. Relaxing in our pristine rivers and lakes. The summer sun shines a light on some of Canada’s best outdoor activities. That same sun can also bring out a myriad of eye health problems. Enjoying the beauty of our country starts with protecting our eyes.
Prolonged sun exposure has been repeatedly proven to be extremely harmful to the eyes, says Dr. Reena Garg, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai. “Summer is specifically a period of concern,” she notes, “as we tend to spend more time outdoors.”
Since sun damage is cumulative, the choices we make every day matter. Over time, UV radiation can cause macular degeneration, eyelid cancer, growths on the eye’s surface, and more. Garg ranks cataracts as the most common problem. More than 2.5 million Canadians suffer from cataracts, which cause cloudy vision, a hard time seeing at night, sensitivity to light, and double vision. Though much rarer than cataracts, Garg says one of the most serious complications of prolonged UV exposure is the cancer melanoma. “While most of us think of melanoma as a skin condition, it can occur in the eye,” she warns.
The list of risks is extensive. Unfortunately, awareness of these risks is not so extensive, says optometrist Stephen Taylor in Victoria, BC. “Studies show that barely one in six say that eye health was the reason for wearing sunglasses. The majority believe that sunglasses are best suited to cutting glare.”
Even if we’re aware of potential eye health problems, the summer activities we all enjoy can heighten our risks in ways we don’t expect. According to Statistics Canada, some of Canadians’ favourite activities include hiking, swimming and other water sports, and outdoor sports such as golf. Each of these outdoor pastimes can have unexpected effects on our eye health.
“Don’t forget that, when hiking at higher altitudes, the air is thinner so there is more UV radiation,” says Taylor. UV radiation jumps by 4 percent for every 1,000 ft (305 m) of elevation. For example, hiking Mount Logan in the Yukon would expose you to 78 percent more UV radiation compared to taking a walk at sea level.
“Reflected light off the surface of the water can be equally or more harmful than direct sunlight,” says Garg. Meanwhile, sand at the beach reflects up to 25 percent of the UV radiation.
When shooting hoops or playing tennis, be aware of the pavement. When the sun hits concrete, the concrete can reflect up to 25 percent of the UV radiation.
Donning sunglasses is one effective way to protect our eyes from the sun, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. But walk into any store and the multiple options can be dizzying. Know exactly what to check for to find the best eye protection.
“Look for 100 percent UVA/UVB labels,” says Dr. Sherman Tung, president of the BC Association of Optometrists.
“Many people erroneously think that cost affects the level of protection in a pair of sunglasses,” says Garg. “Affordable lenses block UV rays just as adequately as designer, more expensive lenses. Cost is typically related to the frame rather than the lens itself.”
“Gray, copper, and brown lenses help reduce bright light conditions,” says Tung. “They are ideal for outdoor sports such as baseball, cycling, running, golf, and water sports. Rose and amber lenses are better for low light conditions. If you go hiking in the forest with a limited amount of sunlight, these will be ideal.”
They don’t help with UV rays, but they can cut out glare. “This will cause less strain on the eyes in very bright conditions,” says Tung, adding that polarized sunglasses are ideal for the beach, when participating in water sports, or while driving.
“Choose a frame that has good coverage from the sides and the top to protect your eyes from UV rays coming from all angles,” says Tung. Studies show that small frames allow so much light to enter the eye from other angles that it can negate some of the benefits of UV-protective lenses.
No matter the weather, aim to sweat a little every day. “Regular exercise is beneficial for eye health,” says Taylor. For example, research studying more than 40,000 runners found that people who ran the most had a lower chance of developing macular degeneration.
“If you smoke, quit,” recommends Taylor. “People who smoke are at a greater risk of developing age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.” In fact, smoking can double our risks of some kinds of vision loss. Heavy drinking has also been linked to some forms of eye disease, including early age-related macular degeneration. By taking the right preventive steps, we can keep our vision and our eyes as healthy as possible. This way, we can continue to enjoy and appreciate Canada’s summer beauty for many years to come. a
Talk to your health care practitioner about these supplements, which studies show may protect against some eye diseases:
There’s more to protecting our eyes than just picking up a pair of sunglasses. Lifestyle and daily habits also play a big role.
“Midday is typically worse for sun exposure,” says Taylor. The Canadian Cancer Society also recommends checking the daily weather forecast for the latest UV index reported by Environment Canada.