It’s not just your skin you need to protect in the sun – UV exposure is a gateway to age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of sight loss in the UK.
Here optometrist Francesca Marchetti reveals how you can look after your vision this summer.
Just as it can affect your skin, ultraviolet (UV) light can harm your eyes as well – and it’s one of the biggest risks to our vision because it can damage the cornea (the delicate, clear surface of the eye) as well as the skin around the eyes.
Known to be a catalyst for cataracts, UV can also cause macular degeneration (which can trigger blurred or loss of central vision) and can also lead to melanomas at the back of the eye.
Short, intense exposure can also cause photokeratitis, an inflammation of the cornea, almost like sunburn.
This tends to occur more in snow, but white sand and water reflections have the same effect.
Also, pool chemicals can affect the natural tear film in what’s known as “swimmer’s eye” – the sore redness you get after swimming in a chlorinated pool. But there are simple steps you can take to keep your eyes healthy for summer and beyond.
Are your shades up to scratch?
There’s no such thing as suntan lotion for eyes, so sunglasses are a must. Always look for the European CE mark or British Standard BS 2724, and preferably they should provide UV400 protection (absorbing all UV light).
Fake sunglasses have fake markings, so don’t be tempted by those cheap Ray-Bans on sale at the beach – buy from a reputable retailer.
Go as dark as you like, and make sure they’re big enough to cover the eye.
If you wear prescription glasses, you also need prescription sunglasses – or clip-ons, if you prefer. Photochromic lenses – ones that change with the light – are OK but not much use for driving as modern car windscreens filter out the UV light needed to activate them.
If it’s bright and sunny, or you feel the need to put on SPF, you should be wearing sunglasses – whatever your age. If you can’t get a child to wear sunglasses, it’s really important they wear a hat with a peak that shades their eyes.
It should go without saying, but don’t look directly at the sun, and certainly not through a telescope or binoculars – you could burn your retina.
If you have hay fever, it’s important to take your medication to stop your eyes getting sore, itchy and dry.
A lot of antihistamine eye drops aren’t suitable for use with contact lenses, so make sure you check first.
Don’t forget to apply sun cream around the eye and on the eyelid – one of the most common sites for
If you’ve sensitive eyes prone to redness and feeling uncomfortable when swimming, use a preservative-free lubricant, often called artificial teardrops, to rinse them out afterwards.
Ensure they’re preservative-free to minimise the risk of irritation.
Wearing contact lenses for any form of swimming – in chlorinated pools, freshwater lakes, rivers or the sea – for any length of time is a big no-no. There are too many bugs in all kinds of water that can end up in contact lenses.
Usually, your own natural tears would wash them out, but if you’re wearing lenses, those bacteria stick around and breed on the lens – and you don’t want that.
If you really can’t see without your lenses, it may be worth getting prescription swimming goggles.
Get a check-up
Have an eye examination every two years, unless your optometrist advises more frequently. They can catch potential problems early. You can start taking children from age two-and-a-half.
People take kids to the dentist at a really young age, but often don’t think about eye care. Bear in mind eye tests carried out in schools are screenings rather than a full eye examination, and are subject to the postcode lottery. Staying on top of issues caused by hormonal changes – menopause, pregnancy and puberty – is also about early detection.
However, most hormonal issues are related to dry eyes. Again, a preservative-free lubricant is your best bet.
Boost your diet
Regularly include oily fish with high omega-3 in your diet as this supports tear structure, helping combat dry eyes.
Dark green leafy vegetables and brightly coloured fruits contain vegetable nitrates and carotenoids that help protect the macula (the most sensitive spot on the retina), warding off macular degeneration.
Many of us don’t eat enough fresh fruit and veg (your five a day should be seen as a minimum, not a maximum), so consider a supplement with the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin as they help protect the macula.
Try Holland & Barrett Lutigold Extra 20mg (£12.99 for 30 capsules; hollandandbarrett.com).
Regularly clean out your make-up bag
Still using the same mascara you did on New Year’s Eve? It’s time to bin it.
Change your mascara every three months, don’t share make-up and never sleep with it on. If you do, it can block up the hair follicles in the tear glands and give rise to a condition known as blepharitis.
While powder shadows and liners tend to be less problematic, wet products, such as mascara and liquid eyeliner, are the worst culprits for breeding bacteria.
And this becomes a bigger problem in the summer as the storage temperatures rise.
A good idea is to date these when you open them, and find yourself a good, low-cost high street mascara, so you’ll be happy to throw it away even if it isn’t finished.
I find people who buy expensive designer-brand mascaras end up being the ones who experience the most eye infections as they’re loath to chuck them out when they should.
Look at your lifestyle
You’re four times more likely to develop macular degeneration if you’re a smoker. A lot of smokers are warned of the risks of heart disease and lung disease, but they’re not usually aware it creates issues for eyes as well – we just don’t talk about it enough.
Studies also indicate that being obese puts a strain on the cardiovascular system, which can cause problems with vision, including glaucoma.
- Francesca Marchetti is an independent optometrist and a councillor of the Association of Optometrists.