Use sunglasses for vision protection starting at an early age

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

When kids pack for summer camp, sunglasses may not always top the supply list. But I made them a priority for my 12-year-old son Carson, who just started rowing camp in Florida, for two reasons:

  • Our eyes are most vulnerable to the sun’s ultraviolet rays in our teens, 20s, and 30s, although the damage usually doesn’t show up until later in life.
  • The sun’s rays are especially intense near reflective surfaces.

“If you spend time near the water, the beach, or snow, the sunlight bounces off of those surfaces and right into the eyes,” Dr. Louis Pasquale told me. He’s an ophthalmologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

The ultraviolet rays in sunlight can damage the eyes. However, experts don’t know exactly how ultraviolet rays harm the eyes, and some even debate whether sunlight directly causes common eye conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration, according to Dr. Pasquale. Cataracts are a clouding of the eye’s lens, which makes vision blurry. Glaucoma is an increase in pressure inside the eye, which can damage the optic nerve and lead to blindness. Age-related macular degeneration gradually destroys the macula, the part of the eye that provides sharp central vision.

But there’s good evidence that sun exposure can cause exfoliation syndrome, which, in turn, can lead to vision problems. As I write in the June 2015 Harvard Health Letter, exfoliation syndrome involves the production of tiny dandruff-like flakes inside the eyes. As they build up, these flakes can clog the eyes’ natural drains, which can lead to other problems.

Worldwide, exfoliation syndrome is the most common identifiable cause of secondary open-angle glaucoma and secondary closed-angle glaucoma. Exfoliation syndrome is also linked to cataracts and possibly to macular degeneration. “Research has shown that women between ages 15 and 24 who spend 10 hours a week in the sun seem to have a twofold risk of exfoliation syndrome compared with people who spend two or three hours a week in the sun,” says Dr. Pasquale.

Use sunglasses for protection

Protecting your eyes from the sun’s damaging rays is a good strategy at any age. You don’t have to spend a bundle to get a good pair of sunglasses. But you do need to know what to look for in lenses. Most important: protection against ultraviolet rays, both UVA and UVB. You’ll want 95% to 100% blockage. Also look for polarized lenses; they reduce the glare from water, sand, and snow.

But buyer beware: manufacturers aren’t required to disclose or guarantee UV protection. “You can’t be certain that an inexpensive pair of sunglasses from the drugstore will really provide protection, even if it promises blockage on the label,” says Thomas Merrill, an optician at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. He recommends going to an optical store where you can get guidance that will help you select a good-quality product. Even if you don’t need a pair of prescription sunglasses, you can always benefit from expert advice, especially if you already have eye damage.

If you wear prescription eyeglasses and don’t want to buy prescription sunglasses, you can buy sunglasses that fit over your regular glasses. “This gives you protection from the top and sides, and it’s more comfortable for your eyes, especially if you’re on the water,” says Merrill. A pair of these usually runs about $50.

Add early detection, too

In addition to protecting your eyes from ultraviolet light, another way to stop cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration from robbing you of your vision is to discover these conditions before they cause trouble. You can do that with a comprehensive eye exam. That involves dilating the eyes to open the pupils so a clinician can examine the back of the eye at the retina. He or she will also check the pressure in your eyes, look at their structure and muscle function, and correct vision problems if necessary.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends comprehensive eye exams every two to four years for people ages 40 to 55, every one to three years for people ages 55 to 65, and every one to two years for people ages 65 and older. People with risk factors for eye problems — individuals with diabetes, for example — may need more frequent eye exams. Younger adults need comprehensive eye exams less frequently — at least once between the ages of 20 and 29, and at least twice between the ages of 30 and 39. Children and teens should have their eyes screened every one to two years by their family physician, and visit an ophthalmologist if they need further evaluation.

Protecting youthful eyes

Carson agreed that he needed sunglasses — especially a pair that looked cool. We went on the hunt for sport sunglasses with UV protection, which we found pretty quickly. They didn’t break the bank, and they gave me some peace of mind that my son’s eyes will be protected as he skims across the water.


  1. Mithun Pandit

    Well written blog. Thanks a lot for sharing.

  2. Maxis

    You shared some informative tips on protecting eye-vision. My younger son don’t like to use sunglasses. Is there any idea protect eyes from rays.

  3. Shamim Reza

    I used sun glass, when I go outside of house.

  4. Viajes a la India

    I am totally agree with you that sunnglases protect the ultra-violet rays , Thanks for sharing an informative blog.

  5. Fred

    Thanks for sharing an informative post! Most of us take our eyesight for granted until it’s threatened. A lot of eye and vision problems can be avoided by taking proper precautions. Eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidants like leafy, green vegetables and fish is also an effective way to maintain healthy eyes and good vision.

  6. Irene Yonng

    I didn’t know that the ultraviolet rays would damage our eyes like that until i read this article. I think i need a pair of sunglasses now.
    On condition that, an research showed that if people expose to ultraviolet light for a long time, the body can secrete a kind of signaling molecules which can make them feel cheerful: endorphins,
    just like heroin and other drugs, which can cause physiological dependence, drug resistance and similar addiction behavior in rats and mice. So, for our health, we should not pursue sun blindly.

  7. MuscleSupplement11

    Nice Blog!!!
    Thanks for sharing this great information in blog. The body is an exceptionally complex machine and needs the right care and support to get the best results.

  8. Alan Fair

    I was led to believe that ordinary glass filters out the ultra-violet rays? For example the car windscreen does this?

  9. Tom

    I have no doubt that there are some effects from UV to the eyes..but there is no scientific evidence that wearing sunglasses at an early age will prevent problems later in life.

    For thousands of years our ancestors marched along without sun glasses..they squinted when it was bright outside naturally.

    I rarely wore sunglasses as a kid in California and really didn’t start wearing them on a regular basis until I was in my late 30’s..I’m 61 now and still don’t need glasses to see or read

    Did not wearing them make it that my eyes made it this far without problems? Had I worn them would I have had problems?

    We don’t know do we…arbitrarily saying kids should always wear sunglasses without science backed evidence is questionable advice IMO.