Spring is here and summer is on the horizon, and that means people are going to be making their way back outside and be under the sun more frequently. Just like the skin, the eyes can be as vulnerable to damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. The eyes are often overlooked when people think of UV protection. Here’s what you need to know about how to keep your sight safe the next time you’re catching some rays at the beach, out for a run-in park, or just about anywhere.

UV-A vs. UV-B

Sun damage can occur in as little as 15 minutes, says optometrist Dr. Keylee Brown, a member of the American Optometrist Association who’s also on the Georgia Optometric Association board of trustees.

“The immediate effects of sunburned eyes — or photokeratitis — include redness, burning, swollen eyelids and blurred vision,” Brown says. “While your eyes heal from photokeratitis, the discomfort can be treated using over-the-counter eye drops, antibiotic drops or ointment recommended by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.”

She adds that chronic overexposure and frequent sun damage can lead to the early onset of eye diseases, such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, which can cause vision loss and blindness.

Dr. Carol Alexander, an optometrist with Johnson & Johnson Vision Care in Jacksonville, Florida, says there are different classifications of UV radiation, and each can have unique effects on the ocular tissue.

“UV-A has the potential to cause more damage to your central vision by impacting the macula, a portion of your retina located at the back of the eye,” Alexander says. “Structures in the front of your eye, such as the cornea and lens, tend to absorb UV-B rays, which may lead to eye changes as well with the most common being cataract.”

Cataracts and macular degeneration are more often associated with prolonged UV exposure, she says. It’s also possible to develop ocular melanoma on the surface of the eye as a result of prolonged exposure to UV radiation, Alexander adds.

Keep your sight safe

Dr. Roger Goldberg, a retina specialist in Walnut Creek, California, says UV rays can damage the eyes whether it’s sunny or cloudy, so it’s important to protect the eyes with sunglasses no matter what the forecast says.

“If you’re heading to the water — even if it’s overcast — remember that UV rays can bounce off sand, water and sidewalks too, compounding your sun exposure,” he says.

To provide adequate protection for your eyes, the AOA says sunglasses should:

• Block out 99 percent to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation.

• Screen out 75 percent to 90 percent of visible light.

• Have lenses that are perfectly matched in color and free of distortion and imperfection.

• Have lenses that are gray for proper color recognition.

If you participate in potentially eye-hazardous outdoor work or sports, sunglasses lenses should be made from polycarbonate or Trivex material because these types of lenses provide the most impact resistance, according to the AOA.

“Wearing sunglasses, particularly wraparound styles, helps keep rays out of your eyes from all angles,” Goldberg says. “The bigger, the better. Don’t forget about hats. They also help block UV rays from your eyes, with the added benefit of keeping the sun off your face, scalp and neck. Sunglasses that have a label or sticker indicating they block 100 percent of UV rays or are UV400 will do the trick.”

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends never looking directly at the sun, as this can lead to solar retinopathy, which is damage to the eye’s retina from solar radiation.

Alexander says in addition to looking for UV400, people can stay smart while sunglasses shopping if they don’t judge a pair based on the darkness of the lens, as it’s not a key indicator of UV protection.

“Don’t be fooled by price — higher price is not necessarily correlated to better protection,” she says. “Choose sunglasses that fully cover your eyes and fit closely to your face to help prevent exposure to UV rays from different angles. Double check the label before you purchase. While polarized sunglasses help reduce reflected glare, i.e., sunlight that bounces off snow or water, this quality on its own does not provide enough UV protection.”