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Wearing sunglasses now will help protect eyes from developing serious conditions related to ultraviolet light. From left: Tammy Lawton, Gina Endy, Amy Simon and Lori Reichenbach, all of Winfield, laugh while lifting their sunglasses.

Sunglass chic? Absolutely. As Hollywood stars know, sunglasses add symmetry to our faces, cover our flaws and even lend us an air of mystery … what emotions are those dark shades hiding?

Better than beauty, though, is the practical side of sunglasses: those stylish lenses can save us from potentially blinding damage.

“Protecting your eyes from the sun’s harmful rays is important for overall eye health,” said Dr. David Cute, ophthalmologist at UPMC in North Central Pa. “While we cannot see them, the sun’s ultraviolet rays are not only damaging to the skin, but they can also damage the eye’s lens, cornea and retina.”

According to Dr. Judith Bianchi Bowser, the director of Optometry for Geisinger, the two most common outcomes of too much ultraviolet light are cataracts and macular degeneration.

“Cataracts can usually be taken care of surgically. Macular degeneration, not so much,” she said. “It can be potentially sight threatening, and one of the main culprits is ultraviolet light. So it is recommended that everybody protect their eyes from the ultraviolet lights. It is an extremely strong reason to wear sunglasses.”

Macular degeneration is a broad term referring to a range of degenerative eye conditions involving the center of the retina, known as the macula, Cute said. It ultimately results in gradual loss of central vision. “While age is the most common cause of macular degeneration, overexposure to sunlight can also play a role in its development,” he said.

Furthermore, macular degeneration can be hereditary, Bianchi Bowser added. “We kind of have a saying. ‘If Grandma gets it, you put sunglasses on the grandkids,’” she said. “If there’s any macular degeneration in your family, it is super important that you wear the sunglasses.”

It’s important to note the sun can wreak havoc on our eyes in other ways. Dr. G. William Orren, III, optometrist at The Eye Center of Central PA, in Northumberland and Mifflinburg, noted a condition called pinguecula, which causes a yellowish raised growth to develop on the white part of the eye. Likewise pterygium, which is a growth on the cornea, can affect vision and require surgical intervention. It is sometimes called surfer’s eye, although it can affect anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors.

“Also, looking at the sun directly can cause solar retinopathy, which can cause permanent vision loss,” Orren said.

And just as we can get sunburn on our skin, we can get it on our cornea, which is called photokeratitis, Cute said. “This commonly leads to urgent medical visits because of severe eye pain and an abrupt onset of symptoms,” he said. “Luckily, it is typically self-limiting and resolves without permanent visual trouble, but any significant eye problem should always be evaluated by an eye doctor to properly diagnose and treat the issue.”

How can sunglasses protect eyes?“Certain sunglasses that have ultraviolet coating on them will block out the invisible rays,” Bianchi Bowser said. “The rays that are visible aren’t as damaging as the ultraviolet rays, but when they get in the eye, they can be very damaging.”

“Sunglasses of good quality block 99 percent of UV light and allow more comfortable clarity when worn in sunlight,” Orren said. A label that says the glasses are rated at least UV 400 is more important than the darkness of the shades themselves. It’s that ultraviolet coating or, even better, UV protection embedded in the lens that protects our eyes.

“The darkness will help you with the brightness so you don’t squint,” Bianchi Bowser said. “That’s nice. But it’s those invisible rays that get in there and cause damage.”

People shouldn’t let overcast days cause a false sense of safety. Ultraviolet rays are as strong as ever.

“Sunglasses are recommended when it’s cloudy out because the ultraviolet rays are still getting in the eyes,” Bianchi Bowser said. “They’re still causing the damage.”

“Reflective glare from the snow can be especially bothersome and cause increased chance of developing ocular complications,” Orren added.

Features to look for in sunglasses

“The single most important thing to look for when buying sunglasses to protect your eyes is a sticker or tag indicating that they block 100 percent of UV rays,” Cute said. “When choosing a pair of sunglasses, it is crucial to choose a pair that offers strong UV protection.” There are two distinct varieties of sunlight: UVA and UVB, he explained. While both are invisible to the human eye, and both are dangerous to our eyes, UVA radiation penetrates the body more deeply and is believed to be more harmful to our eyes.

Before making a purchase, read the label. “A pair of glasses might be labeled UV absorbent, for example, but the label might not indicate exactly how much UVA and UVB rays are blocked,” Cute said.

While most sunglasses today, even the cheaper ones, are rated UV 400, it doesn’t hurt to have them tested at an optometrist or optician’s office. Wearing unprotected shades can actually do more harm than good. Dark glasses cause your pupils to grow bigger naturally, Bianchi Bowser said. “So now you’re opening up your eye for even more of those damaging rays,” she said. “So sunglasses that are not UV-protected can actually be worse.”

Size matters too, Cute said. Bigger frames and wraparound styles offer more coverage and help keep those UV rays from entering the eyes from the sides.

“Proper fitting and adjustment is essential, especially with bifocal or progressive no-line bifocals,” Orren said.

Polarized lenses are worth a try too.

“Polarized sunglasses reduce glare and reflective light, allowing better clarity with water sports, for instance,” Orren said. “The difference in optical quality is what separates various types of sunglasses — the better the optical quality, the better the visual image.”

“So the Cadillac pair of sunglasses would be the UV coating with the color lens that you want to help reduce the brightness, with the polarization. That’s the Cadillac,” Bianchi Bowser said with a laugh.

Regardless of lens color or polarization, the most important feature of any pair of sunglasses is the UV coating, she said, adding, “The UV coating is number one.”

Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Email comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com

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