Eye Sunburn is Real: Here’s Why it Matters

Sun Reflecting on Water

The sun reflecting on water, sand, snow and ice can cause sunburn too.
Photo courtesy Mohamed Nasah on Unsplash.

They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. With summer on her way and May being designated Healthy Vision Month by the National Eye Institute and supported by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, it’s the perfect time to discuss the effects of ultraviolet light on our eyes, how to care for them and how to protect them. Sun exposure isn’t just damaging to our skin. It’s damaging to our eyes. It can also occur any time during the year, not just in the summer. Light reflected up from the snow can be equally as detrimental as light reflected up from the water. Here’s how to protect your eyes from sunburn and what to do if they get burned. Stay tuned to the end for a video rundown on eye sunburn.

Your Eyes Can Get Sunburned Too!

The eyes are super sensitive to the effects of the sun and can become sunburned just like the skin. Even short term exposure can be harmful. Sunburn of the eye is called photokeratitis. It can be caused by the sun reflecting from the water, sand, snow or ice; staring at the sun; tanning bed lights; or the flashes from welding. It affects the cornea – the clear front part of the eye – and the conjunctiva – the clear covering over the whites of the eye.

Photokeratitis can cause redness, swelling, a burning sensation, gritty feeling, blurry vision, watering, pain and sensitivity to light. It will usually resolve slowly over 24-48 hours. However, if it does not resolve, if there are any problems with vision, the pain cannot be controlled or the eyes appear infected, a follow up with an eye doctor is required.

To care for sunburned eyes and help them feel more comfortable we can use lubricating drops, also called artificial tears; a cool damp cloth over the closed eyes; and over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol™️) and ibuprofen. It’s important to take out contact lenses and not put them back in until the problem has resolved. And NO rubbing! If the eyes are sensitive to the light wear sunglasses to protect them and stay indoors as much as possible.

Other Long-Term Eye Conditions

Kids Eyes More at Risk

Kids eyes are at even greater risk of being sunburned. Prevention includes wearing sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.
Photo courtesy Shelly Galligan.

Sun damage to the eyes builds up over a lifetime. In addition to sunburned eyes, long term exposure to the sun can cause visual changes and increase the risk of eye diseases such as cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye; macular degeneration, a visual problem with the area of the retina called the macula; and growths or tumors of the eye. Melanoma of the eye is rare, but it does happen and can’t be seen with a mirror which is one of the many reasons regular eye exams are so important. Kids can be even more at risk because of physical differences like larger pupils and clearer lenses that allow more light in and for the light to penetrate deeply into the eye; and because they are often outside without eye protection.

Preventing Eye Sunburn

As always prevention is key. In this case it’s also pretty simple. Wide brimmed hats are great to shade the eyes from sun exposure from above. A hat alone though will not be effective protecting the eyes from the reflection off the water, sand, snow or ice. The best defense is sunglasses! They should be worn even on cloudy days for the same reason we apply sunscreen on cloudy days. UV rays can penetrate cloud cover. The most important thing to look for is sunglasses that block out 100% of the UVA and UVB rays. The bigger the lenses the better.

UVA And UVB Sunglasses Are The Best Defense

UVA and UVB treated sunglasses are the best defense agains eye sunburn.
Photo courtesy Julia Kouzenkov on Unsplash.

Polarized lenses don’t provide any extra UV protection, but they’re great on the water because they reduce the glare and help with optics. Color also doesn’t matter for UV protection. Darker lenses don’t protect better, though they may look more dashing. Gray lenses don’t protect better than any other color, however they do tend to increase contrast and distort colors less. Sunglasses don’t need to be expensive to provide excellent protection, they simply need to block 100% of both types of UV light.

You Can Get Your Sunglasses Checked for UV Protection

Remember to use a Croaky to keep them firmly on the boat. Mine tend to delaminate quickly, so I opt for a piece of hollow core line and some electrical tape. Not exactly sexy, but really functional. Wondering if your sunglasses have the UV protection they claim or are your glasses older and you want to make sure they’ve still got it? You can take them to an optical store to be checked. Any store that has a UV light meter can test your sunglasses for you.

Please protect yourself and your kids with UVA and UVB blocking sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat whenever you’re outside. Thank you for taking care of yourself on the water (and everywhere).

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  1. Lisa Gibson on June 21, 2019 at 6:52 am

    Excellent info!

    • Shelly Galligan on June 21, 2019 at 9:01 am

      Thank you Lisa! I’m so happy you found it useful!

  2. Richard Beers on June 21, 2019 at 3:16 pm

    Thanks for this! As we age, enjoying the outdoors requires more awareness and prevention to be able to continue to have a great time out there. Your reminders are great for telling us the why as well as the what to do!

    • Shelly Galligan on June 21, 2019 at 3:53 pm

      Thank you Richard! I’ll be looking for you with your sunglasses on out on the water:-)

  3. Patrick W Ward on June 21, 2019 at 7:02 pm

    I have just found out I have dry eyes ,wonder if all those days (both sailing and skiing), contributed? Maybe just age! I did ask the eye Doctor can I get 10 years says with decent diet. If I was 40 I would be more concerned.

    • Shelly Galligan on June 23, 2019 at 5:30 pm

      I’m happy you’ve consulted with your doctor. Thank you for taking good care of your eyes:-)

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