Sunlight and Your Eyes

Whether we view them as the windows to the soul or a good backdrop for our eye shadow, our eyes are obviously of incredible importance – for most, they represent the most cherished of all our senses, providing our most immediate and lasting impressions of the world.

Yet without realizing it, we may expose our eyes to danger every day, simply by going outside. Over time, the sun’s rays can seriously damage the eyes and surrounding skin, leading to vision loss and conditions from cataracts and macular degeneration to eye and eyelid cancers. However, some simple protective strategies practiced daily can help keep our eyes and the sensitive skin around them healthy throughout our lives.

Don’t Take the Sun Lightly

Certain types of light from the sun can wreak havoc in the eye area.

Ultraviolet A and Ultraviolet B light Long-range, ultraviolet A (UVA) and short-range, ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are the most dangerous forms of light produced by the sun. At 320-400 nm (nanometers, or billionths of a meter) and 290-320 nm, respectively, these powerful rays have wavelengths shorter than visible light, making them invisible to the naked eye. They are considered a major cause of cataracts, eyelid cancers and certain other skin cancers, and believed to play a part (along with high-energy visible light, which includes blue light, part of the visible light spectrum) in macular degeneration, one of the major causes of vision loss in the U.S. for people over age 60. In addition, UV rays can prematurely wrinkle and age the skin around the eyes.

High-Energy Visible Light (HEV light)/Blue Light – Some of the latest eye research has implicated HEV light – high-energy visible light in the violet/blue spectrum – as a contributor to the development of cataracts, macular degeneration and other serious eye maladies. HEV falls into the near-UV range, from almost 400 to over 500 nm in the visible spectrum.

Blue light, roughly between 440 and 490 nm within the HEV spectrum, can damage the retina over time, leading to macular degeneration. The retina is the ocular membrane where images are formed and transmitted to the brain; the macula, the region of sharpest vision located near the center of the retina, is the most likely area to be damaged.

Are You at Risk?

The fairer your skin, the greater your age, and the lighter your eyes, the higher your long-term risk of sun damage to your eyes, especially if your work or recreation involves prolonged sunlight exposure. Light eyes are at increased risk for skin cancer and some eye diseases because they contain less of the protective pigment melanin.

According to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database, an estimated 2,390 men and women were diagnosed with, and 240 died from, cancers of the eye and orbit in 2008. With their thin and delicate structures, and greater lifetime exposure to the sun than any other part of the body, the eye and surrounding areas are particularly prone to cancers.

The reality is that all of us are susceptible to eye and eyelid cancers or other damage from the sun, and we need to find ways to help protect ourselves on a daily basis, because the damage keeps adding up over time.


If you detect symptoms of any problems with your eyes or eyelids, be sure to see a physician. Ophthalmologists have the greatest knowledge of eye conditions, while dermatologists are experts on the skin.

At first, the physician may choose to observe an eye problem over time to see if the symptoms worsen or abate. Many lesser problems can also be solved with simple strategies like eyedrops. For more serious conditions, many forms of treatment are available. For example, surgery is the front-line treatment for cataracts, eye cancers, and eyelid cancers. Different forms of radiation may also be used on cancers, especially if the patient is considered too sick or weak for surgery. Other forms of therapy may include lasers, cryotherapy or topical chemotherapy.

The prognosis is good for patients with small, non-metastasized tumors. So remember, for cancers as well as any other eye condition, the earlier you detect and treat the problem, the likelier it is that it will be completely cured.

Medical Reviewer:
Réne S. Rodriguéz-Sains, MD

Published on December 4, 2012