Wellbeing, Sun Safety
Sunglasses are an important part of sun protection – and most of us know to ‘wrap’ on a pair to protect our eyes against UV damage. But which type of sunglasses or lenses provide the best UV protection in New Zealand? And how do UV rays damage your eyes and the skin around it? Feast your eyes on this article to find out – and to see our checklist of the 7 things to look for when choosing a pair of sunnies...
How do UV rays harm our eyes in the short term?
The sun’s harmful UV rays don’t just damage skin: they can also damage your eyes. If your eyes are overexposed to UV radiation, the protective layer on the front surface of the eye may be damaged, at least temporarily.
Short-term over-exposure to UV rays can cause photokeratitis or “snow blindness”. This is sunburn of the cornea, a temporary but often painful condition. This risk increases when UV is reflected from below, by water, sand, or snow, because UV rays bypass the protection that caps or hats provide – a very good reason to always wear UV protective sunglasses in bright conditions.
Above: The eye area is particularly susceptible to UV damage – and long-term sun exposure can lead to skin cancer or macular degeneration.
How does UV radiation harm our eyes in the long term?
Long-term exposure to UV radiation in very bright sunlight over many years may result in eye problems such as cataracts, which cause a gradual clouding of the natural lens of the eye - or a pterygium, a growth on the surface of the eye. Long-term sun exposure can also contribute to macular degeneration of the retina, a leading cause of blindness in later life.
What’s more, long-term UV exposure can lead to different types of skin cancer, including ocular melanoma (which is rare but it does happen). In fact, the eye region accounts for 5% to 10% of all skin cancers.(1)
You see, the skin around your eyes is the most thin and delicate on your body, containing many fragile tissues and making it very susceptible to both UVA and UVB sun damage - which is why those ‘crow’s feet’ (wrinkles) usually appear around the eye region first. All the more reason to protect your eyes and the skin around it with good quality UV protective sunglasses!
Did you know? Harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure to the eyes peaks in the early morning and later afternoon for most of the year – not in the middle of the day – because of the angle of the sun in relation to the eyes at those times. Plus the danger continues to grow as we spend more time in the sun throughout our lives, with cumulative UV damage.(2)
Cost isn’t a factor, but UV protection is.
Contrary to popular belief, spending more on sunglasses doesn’t always mean you’re getting superior eye protection against UV damage. A recent study by Consumer NZ tested 60 pairs of sunglasses ranging in price from $2 to $270 - and the results were rather surprising.
48 pairs of sunglasses met all New Zealand Sunglass Standard’s requirements across a wide range of price tags, providing good eye protection and robust frames, including sunglasses that cost just $6 or less. 12 pairs failed the test, including some surprisingly expensive options, but the study showed that plenty of cheap sunnies offered decent UV protection.
Above: A recent New Zealand study showed that price doesn’t matter. Instead, look for the highest UV protection sunglasses you can afford.
So if you’re in the market for a new pair of sunnies, it might pay to run your eyes over their research results first. Or read on to see what to look for when choosing a pair of sunglasses.
7 things to look for when choosing UV protection sunglasses
1. Don’t go by price. Sunglasses don’t have to cost a lot of money to work well – as the recent study by Consumer NZ showed, a cheaper price tag isn’t always a sign of lesser quality, and vice versa.
Above: Look for UV protection glasses that are larger or a wraparound style to protect both your eyes and the delicate skin around them.
2. Do look for standards. All sunglasses sold in New Zealand should ideally be tested and labeled according to the Australian/New Zealand standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 (although this is still voluntary in New Zealand – see below). Under these standards, sunglasses with a value of 3 and 4 absorb almost all UV radiation. Sunglasses should also be comfortable and not distort or discolour your vision.
3. Check for high UV protection. Not all sunglasses protect against both UVA and UVB radiation, so always check the label for the UV protection rating. Look for a label that that says that the sunglasses block 100% of both UVA and UVB rays (also known as 100 UV sunglasses).
4. Bigger is better. The more coverage from sunglasses, the less sun damage inflicted on the eyes and the delicate skin around them. Consider buying oversized glasses or wraparound-style glasses, which help cut down on the UV rays entering the eye from the side. And don’t forget to wear a broad-brimmed hat – it can block up to 50 percent of UV from the eyes (see best sun protection hats) – especially if you have a higher skin cancer risk.
Above: Toddlers and kids should wear high-quality sunglasses whenever they’re in bright sunlight as their eyes are more susceptible to UV damage.
5. Lens colour doesn’t enhance UV protection. While very dark lenses may look cool, they don’t necessarily block more UV rays. Some sunglasses come with amber, green or grey lenses – these don’t block more sun but can increase contrast, which may be useful if you play sports such as cricket or golf.
6. Polarized lenses cut glare, not UV. Polarisation reduces glare coming off reflective surfaces like water, sand or the pavement. This doesn’t necessarily offer more protection from UV rays, but can make activities like driving or being on the water safer and more enjoyable.
7. Little eyes need protection too! Children of all ages need to wear sunglasses as much as adults do. Children often spend a lot of time in the sun (think school sports days, summers at the beach etc) and they tend to have larger pupils and clearer lenses than adults, so they’re more susceptible to retinal damage as more UV rays can penetrate deep into their eyes3. Wrap‐around styles are better as they also protect the delicate skin around a child’s eyes.
For children, it’s important to choose UV protection sunglasses that are comfortable, fit well and they’ll be happy to wear, so if possible, involve them in choosing a pair. And make sure they also wear a broad-brimmed hat or cap with side flaps to protect their eyes, face and neck from the sun on all sides.
Are our standards up to standard?
In Australia, all sunglasses must comply with Australian and New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS 1067:2003) since July 2019. However, in New Zealand, meeting this standard is voluntary, meaning that sunglasses that meet no standard at all can be sold here - something that will hopefully change in the near future.
The New Zealand Association of Optometrists is pushing for the AS/NZ Standard to be made mandatory in this country. The association believes consumers should have a guarantee sunglasses are of reasonable quality and will protect their eyes without impairing vision – and that companies should test each batch of sunglasses to ensure consistent production standards.(4)
Don’t forget to slip, slop, slap and WRAP!
Remember, whatever the season, if it’s sunny and bright outside – or even if it’s overcast – always follow the SunSmart guidelines:
Skin cancer such as melanoma can appear in some very unexpected places, including on or around the eyes. It can develop in the lining or one of the coatings of the eye: sometimes appearing as a dark spot or you might feel scratchiness under the lid. These can also be symptoms of other eye conditions, so if you’re experiencing these symptoms, see your doctor or an eye specialist.
If you’re worried about a mole or spot near your eyes – or anywhere on your face or body – you might like to book a free SpotChat online consultation with a MoleMap Melanographer. She’ll take a look and advise you whether you need to book a comprehensive Skin Check for further checking and/or monitoring over time.
Sources: 1. www.skincancer.org/prevention/sun-protection/for-your-eyes/how-sunlight-damages-the-eyes. 2. Kanazawa Medical University, Japan, 2012. 3. ‘Children, adults under 30 years of age, and pseudophakic individuals with UV-transmitting IOLs should wear sunglasses in bright environments’(www.ajo.com/article/S0002-9394(09)00892- 7/abstract?cc=y?cc=y). 4,5. NZ Association of Optometrists: https://www.nzao.co.nz/sites/default/files/Sunglasses.pdf
Note: This quick questionnaire is designed to give you an idea of your personal skin cancer risk factors.
It isn’t intended to be a substitute for medical advice or diagnosis – please contact us if you have any questions about your skin cancer risk.
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