How to Protect Your Eyes From Getting Sunburned

Yes, it's a real thing. But it's also easy to prevent.

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You wear sunscreen year-round, even on cloudy days, but what are you doing to safeguard your eyes? (And no, sorry, those $7 sunglasses you use as a permanent headband don't count as a legit form of protection.)

While not as common as sunburned skin, photokeratitis — aka sunburned eyes — can occur when unprotected or under-protected eyes are exposed to sunlight reflecting off water, sand, ice, and snow, as well as those high-intensity UV lamps found in tanning beds. This kind of burn damages the thin surface layer of the cornea, and symptoms range from pain, redness, and swelling to watery eyes, sensitivity to bright light, blurriness of vision, and even temporary vision loss. Eek.

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But don't worry: Janelle Routhier, MD, licensed optometrist, fellow at the American Academy of Optometry and the British Contact Lens Association, and senior director of customer development at Essilor, has some easy ways to help you avoid sunburning your eyes.

1. Always wear the right kind of sunglasses, which might mean splurging a little.

Dropping $100+ on a pair of shades might sound like an indulgence, but it's actually a smart health investment that can save you money and grief down the road. If you choose wisely, that is.

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Dr. Routhier suggests selecting a pair that promises to block at least 98 percent of UVA and UVB. But even those lenses that boast a max amount of UV protection likely won't shield you from all the ambient light hitting the back of your lens and reflecting into your eyes.

"It's important to realize that most sunglasses only block light coming at us from straight ahead. Unless they are very tight around your face — in what we call a 'wrap style' — sunglasses let a lot of light in around the sides," Routhier says.

Ask your eye doc about sunglasses that reduce the reflection off the back of the lens into your eye. Also, make sure to go for polarized lenses. While they don't protect you from the sun's rays, they do reduce glare and help you see more sharply.

So splurge a little on a pair of high-quality shades (the larger the better) and wear 'em as often as you can — on cloudy and sunny days alike — to not only prevent photokeratitis, but also decrease your risk of getting cataracts, which can develop after years of cumulative sun exposure. For maximum protection and style, pair shades with a floppy, wide-brimmed hat.

2. Refuse to part with those cute-looking cheapies? You don't have to.

Head over to your optometrist and ask to swap out your lenses for a pair that will actually protect your precious peepers. They're armed with the lenses you need to better protect your eyes from the sun, so you can upgrade your shades but still keep the fun frames. (Health and fashion crisis averted!)

And listen up, eyeglass wearers: Did you know you can order whatever sun lenses you want in your prescription? That means you can actually see the road in front of you while driving on a sunny day! Score.

3. Don't forget the kids.

Kudos to the parents who diligently coat their children with gobs of sunscreen, but they're probably still overlooking one critical area: the eyes. Kids need eye protection even more than adults do.

"The most damage occurs when we're little because that's when our pupils are the largest. It's also when we're outside the most and when we have both phones and devices [close to] our faces," Routhier says. "Kids are exposing themselves to all sorts of UV, high energy, and blue violet lights."

We get it — who wants to spend a wad of cash on a pair of sunglasses for a six-year-old who will lose or rip them off in a matter of minutes? If you don't think eyewear is the way to go, at least put a wide-brimmed hat on your child's head.

4. Fair folk, take heed.

Anyone who doesn't protect their eyes properly can develop photokeratitis, but people with fair skin and light eyes are more susceptible thanks to the lower levels of pigment found in their skin. Lighter-eyed folks also tend to have slightly larger pupils than their darker-eyed friends, resulting in an extra light-sensitive iris and retina.

Blue-eyed journalist Anderson Cooper experienced firsthand what can happen when you don't wear sunglasses. He reportedly burned his eyes during a 2012 trip to Portugal after spending a few hours boating without any protective eye gear. The result? About 36 hours of blindness and the feeling that his eyeballs were on fire. (Ouch!)

5. Don't swap contact lenses for sunglasses.

Wear contact lenses? You're also more prone to sunburned eyes.

"Generally, having anything in your eye — like a contact — is going to make your eyes more sensitive," Routhier says. "A common misconception is that all contact lenses are UV-blocking, which they aren't. A lot of people think, 'Well, I've got a contact lens on my eye so it's blocking something; it's protecting me.'"

Even those contacts that promise to block UV rays only cover a small portion of your eye and not the surrounding areas. That's why you need sunglasses, regardless of what you wear for vision correction purposes. They help protect the delicate skin around your eyes prone to sunburn, as well as early signs of aging.

Ready to go shopping for some shades? Read our smart guide here.

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