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Sunglasses have become a major fashion statement over the years. From the classic aviators to wayfarers, they’re a staple of many summer wardrobes. But sunglasses are more than an accessory – they play an important role in protecting your eyes from UV rays and should be used year-round.

"Shielding your eyes from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays with sunglasses is essential for protecting against cataracts, macular degeneration, and other eye problems later in life," says Dr. Spencer Onishi, an ophthalmologist at Geisinger Woodbine in Danville.

Sun damage can lead to cataracts

"Cataracts are the clouding of your eye's lens, blurring your vision and making it more difficult to read, drive a car or watch television," says Dr. Onishi.

Most cataracts develop slowly and don't impair your eyesight early on. At first, the cloudiness caused by cataracts may only affect a small part of your eye's lens, leaving you unaware of any vision loss. However, over time, the cataract grows larger, clouding more of your lens and distorting the light passing through that lens.

"At first, glasses and stronger lighting can help you see better with cataracts. However, as the cataract grows, cataract surgery may be necessary if your impaired vision interferes with your regular, daily activities," says Dr. Onishi.

However, taking precautions earlier in life could help prevent cataracts from developing in the first place.

Sunglasses to protect your eyes

"Wearing proper sunglasses when out in the sun, regardless of what time of the year it is, is the equivalent to wearing sunscreen on your skin," says Dr. Onishi. "Sunglasses block the same harmful rays that cause sunburn and skin cancer."

Without sunglasses, almost all the UV light that enters your eyes from the sun is absorbed by the cornea and lens of your eye. But preventing cataracts isn't the only reason to wear sunglasses.

"UV rays can also irritate your cornea, promote macular degeneration and possibly cause skin cancer or growths on or around the eyelids," says Dr. Onishi.

How do you know if your sunglasses are properly protecting your eyes? It isn't the price tag.

"The price doesn't matter. Many inexpensive glasses can block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays. If they do, you'll know from a tag or sticker on the glasses. A UV400 label also means 100 percent UV protection," says Dr. Onishi.

Whether the sunglasses are polarized doesn't necessarily matter as much either. "Polarized lenses reduce glare and are especially helpful for driving, but polarization alone doesn't provide your eyes with UV protection. Ideally, your glasses should have both, but UV protection is more important," says Dr. Onishi.

It’s important to wear sunglasses year-round, too. Even when it’s cloudy, the sun’s rays are still reaching your eyes. And, while some contacts provide UV protection, they don’t cover your whole eye. Choosing larger and close-fitting sunglasses that protect your eye from all angles will help to protect them from UV damage. 

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Spencer Masaichi Onishi, DO
Find an ophthalmology specialist