How the sun damages our eyes

Experts say cataracts, cancer among the risks

Sunglasses aren't just a fashion statement. Experts say they're essential to protect our eyes from the sun.

While there is growing awareness about the damage the sun can do to our skin, experts say many people don't realize how much harm UV rays can cause to our eyes.

"Eyelid skin cancer is more common than you think," said Dr. Rishi Singh, an ophthalmologist at Cleveland Clinic's Cole Eye Institute.

In fact, skin cancer on the eyelid accounts for 5 to 10 percent of all skin cancers, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Most occur on the lower lid, which receives the most sun exposure.

"Many people walk around with little keratosis, or sort of lesions on their skin and don't think much of them," said Singh. "Around the eyelid, they can actually cause ulceration and erosion, and those are the ones that can be most malignant."

The sun gives off two types of ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVB. UVA radiation can penetrate deep into the eye and damage the cornea or retina.

Over time, sun exposure can increase your risk of developing cataracts or macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss for older Americans.

UVB rays can cause a corneal sunburn, which is painful and may cause vision loss.

"The cornea is one of those exposed mucus membranes," said Singh. "It's a very moist organ, and it needs to be continually lubricated. So, having it exposed to sun elements and dry it out completely only leads to a significant decrease in vision."

Everyone's eyes need protection, but experts say certain groups are especially at risk including children under age 10, people with retinal disorders or who have had cataract surgery, people taking medications that increase eye sensitivity to sunlight and anyone with light-colored eyes.

Regular eye exams are the best way to detect any damage you've already done.

To protect your eyes outdoors, experts say wear sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays and blue light. For the best protection, pick a style with larger lenses that fit close to your eyes.

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