Sunglasses – more than a fashion statement

Sunglasses are a universal fashion statement. Originally used in the early 20th century to protect the eyes from syphilis induced light sensitivity, their popularity exploded in the 1920’s. Since then, sunglasses have become a fashionable fixture for all seasons.

From the beach to the snow, for leisure or work, sunglasses are an essential accessory. But behind their stylish appeal lies subtle tools that protect the wearer from an array of potential harms. GMHBA Eye Care optometrist, Sarah Edwards explores the health protecting benefits of wearing sunglasses.

Ultraviolet radiation damage

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a type of energy produced by the sun. Too much UV radiation can cause damage to the skin and eyes, sunburn, tanning and some cancers. Long term exposure to UV can contribute to the progression of several eye conditions, including:

  • Cataracts are the slow clouding over of the lens in the eye that results in decreased vison. Cataracts commonly develop slowly over the course of a lifetime, but this process is accelerated by increased UV exposure.
  • Pteryiums are fleshy lumps of tissue that begin on the white of the eye and can slowly grow over the cornea. They can be uncomfortable, appear red, and potentially impact your vision if they extend to the central portion of the cornea.
  • Photokeratitis also known as snow blindness, is basically sunburn of the eye. It can cause pain, redness, swelling and light sensitivity, which may not be apparent until hours after the UV exposure.
  • Solar retinopathy is permanent damage to the retinal photoreceptors caused by UV rays passing directly through the eye and hitting the retina. You should never look directly at the sun, even while wearing sunglasses.
  • Basal cell carcinomas are non-melanotic skin cancers. The delicate skin around the eye and eyelid is highly susceptible to this type of carcinoma as it is often missed when applying sunscreen.

A UV coating on sunglasses provides much needed protection for your eyes.  Additionally, large close-fitting wrap frames will help to protect the eye area from peripheral UV rays.

Eye surface damage

Exposure to environmental irritants such as wind, dust, pollens or heat can cause surface damage to the eye. It is common for the eyes to water, become red and irritated.

Wearing sunglasses provides a physical barrier to protect the ocular surface. Large, wrap frames will provide the best protection.

Glare and reflection

An obvious reason to wear sunglasses is to decrease the glare from the sun, however in many cases it is the reflected glare of surfaces that is most problematic. The blinding glare may come from:

  • The rear windshield of the car in front of you
  • Snow
  • Water
  • Oil or water on the roads surface

Polarised lenses protect your eyes from this reflected glare, and improve contrast, visibility and comfort. Glare reflected off surfaces is typically horizontal and polarised lenses work by blocking this horizontal light, only allowing vertical light to pass through. Polarised lenses can be produced with a UV coating making them a great option in sunglasses.

Polarised lenses can cause distortions to LCD screens, rainbow effect on side car windows and some people may experience discomfort. Talk to your optometrist or optical dispenser first about the suitability of polarised lenses for your lifestyle.


Reducing glare using tints and polarised lenses will improve the clarity of your vision, and those of us requiring a prescription don’t need to miss out. Prescription lenses can be tinted, have UV coatings and be polarised, to allow you to enjoy your best possible vision, be it while reading by the pool or keeping an eye on your kids in the surf.

While sunglasses are seen as an essential fashion item, they are also designed to provide comfort, clarity and protection for your eyes. With this knowledge on hand it’s important to consider the frame design, fit, UV protection, polarisation and prescription when choosing your next pair.

The team at GMHBA Eye Care can advise you on the best options to suit your lifestyle.