Are you wearing the right sunglasses? How to prevent eye sunburn.

Optometrists share expert tips for avoiding sunburned eyes this summer.
Dog sitting in nature in sunglasses

Start with proper eyewear. DepositPhotos

As a child, you were probably told not to stare directly at the sun. If you weren’t told or refused to listen, you may have learned the hard way. The human eye is one of the most sensitive structures in the body. Even a few seconds of direct sun exposure can dry out the eyes and temporarily blind you. That said, just because you’re not staring directly doesn’t mean you’re immune to the sun’s UV rays. It is entirely possible to get a sunburn on your eyes. 

You should always take some precautionary measures when venturing outside, especially as we approach summer’s longer days and more intense sunshine. We asked optometrists to break down how to best protect your eyes from the sun.

Why do the eyes sunburn easily?

The sun can damage your eyes in two different ways. The most common is a sunburn to the front part of the eye, also known as photokeratitis. Catherine Heyman, the founding dean at the High Point University School of Optometry in North Carolina, says photokeratitis happens when the sun’s UV rays damage the cornea. This clear, thin layer covers your iris and pupil. Excessive exposure to the sun also temporarily injures the conjunctiva, a mucous membrane that covers the white part of your eye. 

illustration of eyeball anatomy
Diagram of human eye anatomy. Image: DepositPhotos

People with photokeratitis usually experience pain that’s akin to the feeling of having sand in your eye. They also frequently report redness, sensitivity to bright light, and blurry vision. Additionally, the eyelids appear swollen. While discomforting, the symptoms are temporary. Heyman says the cornea heals fast, with symptoms resolving in about 24 hours.

Another way the sun can hurt your eyes is when UV rays damage the retina. The retina is the layer of tissue at the back of your eye that catches light throughout the day, which is then converted into electrical signals for your brain to process vision. Jessilin Quint, a member of the American Optometric Association and co-owner of Smart Eye Care in Maine, explains that the UV light from the sun is intense. When it is too concentrated, the UV rays can cause extensive damage to light-sensitive cells housed in the retina. “The UV rays change how those cells behave and when they are not behaving properly, that can permanently cause tissue damage and trigger inflammation.” 

Also known as solar retinopathy, retinal damage occurs when a person stares directly at the sun. Quint explains that damaged light-sensitive cells in the retina tend to be in an area called the macula. The macula handles central vision, allowing people to see clear shapes and colors. A person with retinal damage commonly reports distorted vision or vision loss. 

Depending on how much eye protection a person had on or how long they were sungazing, Quint says there is a small chance for some cells to regenerate, but usually, retinal damage is permanent. This is because the retina does not carry pain receptors. People may not realize they are hurting their eyes at the moment and continue to sungaze for a few seconds to a few minutes. The aftereffects occur hours after the time of injury or after a couple of days.

How to protect the eyes from the sun’s UV rays

Purchase UV-blocking sunglasses

To avoid sunburn, buy a pair of sunglasses that 100 percent block UVA and UVB rays. Both ultraviolet rays are linked to skin burning. Heyman says you’re going to want to have sunglasses on whenever you’re outside in the daytime. Additionally, you’ll want to have your shades on for activities such as surfing, boating, and skiing, as the water and snow reflect the sun’s UV radiation. If you’re going to be in the sun for long periods of time, wraparound sunglasses are another option for protecting the entire face from the sun’s glare. 

“Putting on sunglasses without UV protection is worse than not having any glasses at all.”

Not all sunglasses have the same protection against UV rays. Quint says many over-the-counter sunglasses are not regulated and do a poor job of properly filtering light. These sunglasses enlarge your pupils when it is dark, allowing more light to enter and potentially hurting your retina. “It’s like when you have your eyes dilated at the optometrist,” adds Heyman. “Putting on sunglasses without UV protection is worse than not having any glasses at all.”

While polarized sunglasses do a better job of shielding the eyes from the sun, the best sunglasses are the ones that can completely block out UVA and UVB rays. You can order prescription sunglasses or check for stickers on over-the-counter sunglasses that specifically say they block both UV rays. If you’re unsure or have an old pair at home, you can take them to your local optometrist, who can assess if they cover UV radiation or not.

Stay in the shade

Another precaution to take is staying in the shade as much as possible. The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 in the morning and four in the afternoon. Even when it’s cloudy outside, Heyman says UV rays can penetrate through and cause a minor sunburn.

Apply sunscreen to the eyelids

If you’re outside in the sun, apply sunscreen to your eyelids. “If you look at the percentages of skin cancer that happen throughout the body, despite the eyelids having such little surface area compared to the skin of the entire body, it has a much higher percentage of skin cancer,” says Quint. While you want to avoid sunscreen in the eye, cover the entire eyelid with sunscreen, including sunscreen in the narrow corners. You’ll want to reapply sunscreen every couple of hours and much more often if you are doing an activity such as swimming.

There are certain things to look for when purchasing sunscreen. First is using a broad-spectrum sunscreen. The sun protection factor (SPF) number on sunscreen only measures how much it protects against UVB rays. A broad-spectrum sunscreen guards you from UVA and UVB rays. The second is to choose a mineral-based sunscreen, rather than a chemical sunscreen. Quint says some ingredients in chemical sunscreens are harmful to the eyes and can trigger ocular inflammation or dry eye. 

Some makeup brands include sunscreen in their products, but Quint says this does not give enough coverage. “Makeup products will say it has an SPF of a certain amount, and while it’s better than having no SPF, it’s not giving the person the full protection that’s needed.” She recommends starting with a broad-spectrum sunscreen at the base, adding SPF-included makeup or moisturizer, and reapplying sunscreen every few hours. 

What to do when you have sunburned eyes

Pain from a minor sunburn to the eyes can be managed with acetaminophen or other over-the-counter pain relievers. You’ll also want to rest your eyes, which can look like being indoors and keeping your eyes closed or staying in a darkened room. Heyman says that over-the-counter, non-preserved artificial tears can help with dryness and irritation. Additionally, adding a cold compress to the eyes can reduce inflammation and help you avoid rubbing the eyes. If you need to go out, you’ll want to wear sunglasses to avoid worsening symptoms. 

If your eye sunburn persists for more than 24 hours, visit your optometrist for medical attention.