UV rays are one of the known causes of cataracts, a gradual clouding of the lens of the eye that can destroy vision. The effects of sunlight on the eye are cumulative and depend on the length of time spent in the sun. For example, farmers are likely to develop cataracts at a younger age than office workers.
Experts say that sunglasses help prevent cataracts. They recommend wearing them whenever the light is bright enough to make you squint, even on cloudy days and especially at high elevations.
Most sunglasses list absorption figures or UV protection figures on their labels. Cancer Council Australia recommends wearing sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 for sunglasses (categories 2, 3 or 4) or sunglasses labelled UV 400 or EPF (Eye Protection Factor) 9 or 10. Glasses labelled 'fashion spectacles' (categories 0 and 1) are not sunglasses and do not provide enough UV protection.
UV protection depends mainly on the material sunglasses are made of and how much UV light it absorbs rather than on the colour and darkness of the lenses. Dark lenses do not necessarily protect against UV rays more than lightly tinted lenses. However, colour and darkness of sunglass lenses can affect glare and how suitable they are for specific uses, such as driving.
Good colours for sunglasses are grey, green or brown. Grey lenses provide good protection against glare and do not distort primary colours so they are good for driving. Green lenses let the maximum amount of useful light reach the eyes on an overcast day, and brown lenses sharpen detail and provide better protection against glare.
If sunglasses are to be used for driving, then check that they are not labelled as Australian Standard category 4 ("must not be used when driving") and that colours are easily recognised when viewed through the lenses.
Wrap-around frames protect your eyes from all angles and are a good choice if you are outdoors all day. Polarised lenses cut reflected glare, and are perfect for skiing, boating and the beach.
For children’s sunglasses, look for shatterproof lenses in addition to the above features — they are also a good idea for adults who are rough on sunglasses or who play sport.
The Australian Standard does not apply to prescription glasses, but some prescription glasses also protect against UV radiation. Check with your optometrist or consider adding a UV-protective coating or clip-on shades to your prescription glasses. If you wear lenses that darken when exposed to sunlight, check with your optometrist what level of protection they provide.
The sun’s damage to the eyes does not stop with cataracts. Exposure to both visible light and UV radiation is also a factor in the gradual degeneration of the retina, damage to the cornea, and pterygium (an overgrowth of the conjunctiva, or lining of the eyelid, onto the cornea).
Last Reviewed: 01 December 2010