Yes, It’s True: Your Eyes Can Get Sunburned

You already know the importance of wearing sunscreen all year, but it’s easiest to remember that when we’re all enjoying time spent outside enjoying sunny summer days. But just as SPF should be on your mind (and skin) 24/7/365, protecting your eyes from the sun should also be top priority — because eyes can get sunburned, too, and this damage could lead to cataracts, macular degeneration, and even cancer.

Also known as photokeratitis, sunburned eyes occur when your eyes get too much unprotected exposure to UV light, causing inflammation of the cornea (the smooth, clear covering over the front of your eye). While being outside on a sunny day without sunglasses is enough to hurt your eyes, certain environments can make sun damage worse due to light reflection. If you’ve ever been skiing on a nice day, you know just how intense the glare coming off all that snow can be. Snow is just one of many surfaces that easily reflect light — others include water, sand, and even concrete buildings, sidewalks, and cars. Other forms of exposure to light, such as tanning beds (though we urge you not to use these) or facial laser treatments, can also damage your eyes.

Do you think you might have photokeratitis? A few signs that you’ve temporarily burned your eyes include a painful gritty sensation, tearing, swelling, headache, and blurry vision. If you have sunburned eyes, take a break from sun exposure and rest with a cool compress over your eyes. Be sure to take out contact lenses, if you wear them, and avoid rubbing your eyes — these steps will help your eyes heal. If, after a few days, you’re still experiencing distorted vision, or seeing halos, shadowy areas in your line of sight, or having problems seeing at night, please go to your ophthalmologist — these could be signs of more serious, long-term damage. 

Avoiding photokeratitis is shockingly simple: Just wear high-quality sunglasses when you’re outdoors year-round. While sun damage can be more profound on brighter days, that doesn’t mean that you’re in the clear to go sans sunnies on overcast or hazy days (after all, you still have to wear SPF when it’s cloudy — follow the same rules for ocular sun protection!). Not all sunglasses are created equal; look for sunglasses that offer a UV protection rate of at least UV400, which will block 99.9% of UV rays. Consider a “wraparound” style or a pair with over-sized lenses as they’ll also help protect the delicate skin around your eye. Polarized lenses can also go a long way towards reducing eye discomfort, as they cut down on glare. You can also wear an oversized sun hat or baseball cap for added insurance against the sun. Just whatever you do, don’t leave home without sun protection!