Protecting Kids’ Eyes from Sun Damage

With school holidays about to start and predictions of the best British summer for years, the sight charity Eyecare Trust is warning that the majority of parents are doing nothing to protect their children’s eyes from the sun’s harmful rays, putting them at risk of permanent sight damage and vision problems in later life.

Thousands of parents across the UK were questioned in a OnePoll survey carried out for the Eyecare Trust which revealed that while 79 per cent would normally insist that their children wear sunscreen outdoors, a massive 44 per cent rarely or never make sure that their children wear sunglasses. In the critical 0-8 year age group the figure rises to a worrying 48 per cent.

Although most people are aware that sun protection is vital for skin, our eyes are naturally ten times more sensitive to UV light and children are most at risk. Young eyes have bigger pupils and clearer lenses, allowing up to 70 per cent more UV light to reach the retina than in an adult’s eye. In fact, up to 80 percent of a lifetime’s UV rays will have been absorbed by a child’s eyes before the age of 18.

Eye damage from UV light is cumulative and irreversible and can lead to conditions such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration – Britain’s biggest cause of blindness. Rosie Gavzey, an optometrist and director of the Eyecare Trust, spells it out: “UV exposure in childhood lays down problems for later life. Our message to parents is simple, protect your children’s sight now or they could lose it later.”

It is especially important to protect children’s eyes when they are playing on the beach or by water where there is a lot of reflected light. “Ideally,” says Rosie, “all children – and adults – should wear good quality sunglasses and a hat with a peak or brim when spending time outdoors.”

Good quality sunglasses need not be expensive and the survey revealed that around 35 per cent of people who do buy sunglasses – either for themselves of for their children – get them in a department store. That’s fine as long as you know what to look for. Safe levels of protection against both UVA and UVB are essential and this is indicated by the European Standard CE mark or the British Standard BSEN 1836:1997.

Alarmingly, many parents admit to buying children’s sunglasses either from a street vendor or even a toy shop. In the London area, for example, the survey showed that 28 percent of children’s sunglasses were purchased from these sources. The problem here is that it’s very hard to know what you are getting and whether the glasses will filter out all the UVA and UVB rays. Tinted glasses which do not cut out UV can actually cause more damage because the dark lenses cause the pupil of the eye to dilate, allowing more UV light to enter the eye.

Children in particular need sunglasses that are comfortable and won’t fall off. Your optician will be able to advise on styles that offer the right level of protection, fit properly and are resistant to scratches – at no greater cost than other bona fide shops. Funky colours and designs are available for children and foam frames can be a good option for the very young. Close-fitting wrap-around styles are also a good idea as they cut out more stray UV light from the sides, above and below.

The Eyecare Trust has produced a Guide to UV protection available free from many high street opticians, or as a download from the Eyecare Trust website www.eyecaretrust.org.uk.