Most of us have gotten the message that exposing our skin to UV rays without any protection is about as smart as handing a signed blank check to a stranger. But it's only recently that health experts have seriously begun warning about an equally dangerous threat those rays pose to another part of our bodies: our eyes.
Think about it: The eyes are the only internal body tissues directly exposed to UV. Three hundred and sixty five days a year -- no matter how "cloudy" it appears outside -- radiation (mainly) from the sun is beaming down on our vulnerable windows to the world.
"The rods and cones of the eye are rich in light-absorbing pigmented molecules called chromophores, making it particularly susceptible to photochemical reactions," says Dr. Howard Purcell, O.D., F.A.A.O., former chairman of the Cornea and Contact Lenses Department at Nova Southeastern University's College of Optometry, noting that even the light produced by indoor fluorescent light bulbs relies on the release of UV radiation. "Over time, damage from UV radiation is cumulative and often irreversible."
Among the potential effects of long-term exposure:
Cataracts. This progressive clouding of the eye's lens is the primary cause of blindness worldwide, and recent studies have shown that UV accelerates the deterioration that leads to this age-related condition. Cataract affects more than 22 million people age 40 and older in the U.S. alone.
Eyelid Cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 5-10 percent of all skin cancers are found on the eyelids.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration. Damage to the blood vessels and corresponding nerves in the retina blurs fine detail and dulls colors.
Alarmed that 94 percent of the population remains unaware of the adverse effect UV radiation has on their eyes, an expert panel recommended the adoption of the eye-care equivalent of the successful systems used to rate skincare and sunscreen products. That's now being done -- in the form of the first-ever "Eye-Sun Protection Factor" (E-SPF) -- by Essilor, the nation's leading manufacturer of optical lenses (www.ESPF.com).
"This means consumers will be able to better evaluate the complete level of eye protection provided by their eyewear," says Purcell.
E-SPF values vary from a low of two to a maximum of 25 for everyday lenses, with Essilor's own Crizal No-Glare lenses being the first to attain the most complete daily protection level. For tinted and polarized sun lenses, the same company's Crizal SunShield UV No-Glare lenses provide the maximum protection level with an E-SPF of 50+.And, yes, that does translate into 50 times more protection than without wearing any lens.