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Protecting our eyes from UV and why it’s important

Finally winter is over and the long days of glorious sunshine are ahead! We will get out of our winter woollies and back to the outdoors spending long lazy days enjoying our country’s beautiful weather. Women especially have become very savvy when it comes to protecting our skin from the harsh exposure of excess sunlight and UV. We know to always use a good sunscreen to avoid damage from UV. But what about your eyes? Our eyes are extremely delicate pieces of equipment and deserve no less protection than our skin.
There are many structures of the eye that can be damaged by UV. Starting from the outside our eyelids are susceptible to skin damage and cancer just like other parts of our body. This is especially true for those individuals who have very light skin and eyes. But make no mistake, being dark skinned does not automatically mean that UV won’t affect you.
Our eyelids have the thinnest skin of any part of our body. If you see any growths or moles that are becoming larger, changing colour or shape go and see your eyecare practitioner immediately. Try and use a moisturiser with UV protection whenever you venture outdoors. As far as the rest of the eye goes UV can also cause small growths called pterygiums on the white part of the eye. Many people mistake these for cataracts (more about this later). Pterygia do not generally affect your vision unless they start growing over the pupil.

Long term exposure to UV can also cause cataracts. This is when the lens inside the eye becomes opacified and looks whiteish. They commonly occur as we get older but excessive UV can make them occur earlier. Cataracts will affect your vision and it will be like trying to look through a dirty window.

Driving at night will become especially difficult. Thankfully cataract extractions are no longer the daunting procedure they used to be and a skilled surgeon can remove them under local anaesthetic in about 30 minutes. Cataracts are not always visible externally unless they are very advanced. Your eye care practitioner will always check for these during your routine eye exam and advise accordingly. The retina which is the nerve layer at the back of the eye that enables us to see by transmitting light impulses down the optic nerve to the brain can also be damaged by excessive UV. This can lead to earlier than normal degeneration of the sensitive nerve layer.

So what can you do to protect your eyes? It is important to try and shield your eyes from dangerous UV when having fun and spending time outdoors. A hat and a good pair of sunglasses will do the trick BUT it is important to realise that not all sunglasses are created equal! Although they might seem like a bargain, the cheap pair of sunnies you can buy at the traffic light or in your local bargain basement shop or the ones you get for free with your latest fashion mag can actually do more harm than good! The lenses are not manufactured according to international standards with regards to UV protection (don’t let the fake “UV protection” sticker fool you!) and even more importantly the optical quality of the lenses is often so poor that they cause distortion and can actually lead to headaches and eye strain on top of not actually protecting you from UV! So please beware and invest in a decent pair of sunglasses from a reputable source such as your local optometrist or sunglass retailer. We are not only trained to advise on the type of protection to suit your eyes but can also guide you in terms of the correct fitting as well as latest fashion trends while still ensuring quality optical products. Remember you only have one pair of eyes! Look after them and protect them!

Leoni Joubert Registered Optometrist: Southdale Centre (011 680-3400)

Born to Shine Magazine