Eye protection in the sun

Key points about eye protection in the sun

  • Our eyes are very sensitive and easily damaged by the sun.
  • For most of the year in most of Aotearoa New Zealand, UV levels are high enough that eye protection is needed in the daytime. 
  • Find out what you can do to reduce this risk for both yourself and your family.
Smiling man wearing sunnies outside
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Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can come from natural sources like the sun and from man-made sources eg, tanning beds. There are different types of UV radiation and some can cause damage to your eyes and the sensitive skin around them. For most of the year in most of Aotearoa New Zealand, UV levels are high enough that eye protection is needed in the daytime. 

UV radiation is also reflected off many surfaces. Snow will reflect between 50 and 88% of UV radiation, sea surf (white foam) 25–30% and sand about 15%.

Short-term effects

Brief exposure to high levels of UV radiation can cause short-term effects including: 

  • mild irritation
  • feeling there is something in your eye
  • photoconjunctivitis – inflammation of the conjunctiva (membrane that protects your eye)
  • photokeratitis – known as ‘snow blindness’, which causes inflammation of the cornea and is like sunburn of the eye.

These effects can occur at the time or may be delayed.


Long-term effects

Regular exposure to too much UV radiation can cause permanent to the eyes including:

  1. increased risk of cataracts – clouding of the lens
  2. pterygium – a white or creamy fleshy growth on the surface of the eye
  3. cancer of the cornea or conjunctiva
  4. basal cell carcinoma (skin cancer) of the skin surrounding the eye
  5. wrinkles around the eyes due to loss of elasticity and thinner skin from collagen breakdown and squinting.

Because the sun is so strong in Aotearoa New Zealand it is safest to protect your eyes whenever you are outside. The Ultraviolet Index (UVI) is an international, scientific measure of the level of UV radiation in the environment. The higher the number, the greater the risk of skin damage. If the UVI is 3 or above, your skin can be damaged, so protection is required. Remember that the UVI can still be 3 or over on a cloudy day.   

UVI levels can be found on the NIWA website(external link) the MetService website(external link) or in the weather section of your daily newspaper.   

UVNZ(external link) is a free smartphone app that provides forecasts of the UV index (UVI) at various locations throughout Aotearoa New Zealand

Stay indoors when the sun is at its strongest.

Wear a hat with a broad brim (at least 7cm) to reduce the amount of radiation reaching your eyes. If you're not sure about size, make sure it can shade your face, scalp, neck shoulders and upper back. It's important to make sure it also covers the tops of your ears and the back of your neck. As well as having a broad brim, it should be:

  • made of fabric with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating of 50+
  • made of a fabric with a tight knit weave
  • white or light coloured with a darker colour under the brim to help reduce reflection.

Wear UV protective sunglasses that meet the standard for protection against UV radiation (the standard is voluntary in New Zealand by mandatory in Australia). The colour of the lenses doesn't matter as darker lenses don't always offer better protection.

When choosing sunglasses, make sure they:

  • meet the Australian/New Zealand Standard for sunglasses and fashion spectacles (AS/NZ 1067.2:2016) – you can check the label or ask the retailer whether they meet this standard
  • are comfortable and don't distort your vision
  • are close-fitting or wrap-around to provide the greatest protection from UV rays entering your eyes from the side.

If you wear prescription glasses there are several options to protect your eyes. These include:

  • having the lenses UV protection treated when your glasses are made 
  • having photochromic (transition) lenses which are clear indoors but darken in response to sunlight 
  • having prescription sunglasses made
  • wearing protective sunglasses over your prescription glasses.  

When you're skiing or on the slopes it's important to protect your eyes. You may not think to wear sun protection in winter but it’s especially important when you’re on the ski slopes. Skiers are at increased risk of eye damage because: 

  • sun reflecting off snow can be very bright and harsh 
  • UV radiation can be high even on cloudy days 
  • UV exposure increases as you move higher and closer to the sun  
  • Cold temperatures, dryness and wind on the slopes increases your risk of snow blindness.

While you can wear wrap-around sunglasses while you are watching or getting ready, goggles with polycarbonate lenses offer protection from the sun and from eye injury while you're skiing or snowboarding. They can also provide better peripheral (side vision) than wrap-around sunglasses.  

Sunglasses are available for children. Check they meet the UV protection standard and that they'll stay on securely. Children’s fashion or toy glasses shouldn't be used to protect children’s eyes from UV radiation as they don't provide an adequate level of protection. 

The New Zealand Association of Optometrists recommends a regular eye examination every 2–3 years for healthy adults. If you notice a change in your vision, book an eye examination as soon as possible.

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