Winter Eye Safety | The Unexpected Risk of UV Rays

Three friends hiking through the mountains with sunglasses

When you think about sunglasses, you probably think about the summer. But it turns out that the biggest health risks for our eyes — and the greatest needs for eye protection — are most important in winter.

Chris Day, Clearly’s in-house optician, told us why winter weather is dangerous for our eyes — and the best ways to protect our eyes from winter’s optical dangers.

Why Is Winter Weather Dangerous to Eyes?

Snow gives us opportunities to do winter sports and activities like skiing, sledding, and tubing, but it also exposes our eyes to dangerous amounts of UV energy from the sun.

Here’s how it works: When the sun shines on snow, the snow works almost like a mirror and reflects the sunlight — which contains the UV rays — back up. The water molecules that make up snow refract and redirect the UV rays back into the world around the snowpack.

It’s the same process that redirects blinding sunlight off of a lake, the ocean, or a swimming pool when you’re relaxing outside in the summertime. Snow — frozen water — is actually even better at reflecting sunlight than liquid water. Snow can reflect up to 80 percent of the UV energy that it absorbs from the sun.

When you’re at a high altitude, reflection matters even more. That’s because the Earth’s atmosphere blocks energy from the sun when it is thicker; atmosphere is much thinner at a high altitude than it is at a low one.

Anyway, that’s all a complicated way of saying that you should wear sunglasses or tinted goggles when you’re in the mountains during the winter. Your kids especially need to wear eye protection.

“Children’s eyes are more vulnerable to any type of UV damage,” says Day. “Parents should get their child UV protective sunglasses —and get kids to wear them. The kids might not want to. Don’t give up! It can take a few tries, but let your kid pick a pair they like. It usually helps.”

Little girl skiing with sunglasses on to protect her eyes from UV rays

What Happens to Unprotected Eyes in Winter?

When your eyes are exposed to intense sunlight, they are at risk of suffering from photokeratitis. You know that condition as snow blindness: If you’ve ever spent time outside in the snow on a sunny day, and you weren’t wearing sunglasses, you know how it feels. Your vision will become blurry, and you’ll be temporarily blinded by bright light. Any moving object might leave traces of colour behind it in your vision.

Snow blindness isn’t just annoying — it’s very dangerous. The irritation and blindness you feel is actually caused by UV energy burning off cells on the top layer of your eye. If your eyes are exposed to UV energy for a long time, that damage can become permanent.

If you suffer from snow blindness, be kind to your eyes. In most cases, your body will naturally heal from photokeratitis by generating new cells. Think of it as a sunburn for your eyes: In a similar way, your skin will grow new cells to replace red, raw sunburned skin.

To recover, you’ll want to wear sunglasses when you go outside, minimize screen time, use eye drops, and avoid using contact lenses.

How Can I Protect My Eyes During Winter?

  • Wear sunglasses if you’re outside — especially if you’re planning to spend time at a high elevation. (We’re looking at you, skiers and snowboarders.)
  • Use one-day contact lenses for dry winter days. One-day lenses can feel more comfortable than longer lasting contacts in dry conditions.
  • Drink plenty of water and stay away from lots of caffeine and alcohol — these drugs dry out your whole body, including your eyes.
  • Eat plenty of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s can increase the quality of your tears — they make tears evaporate slowly.

Snow sports should be about bindings, not blinding. Fortunately, your eyes will be happy and healthy during winter sports if you just use a little foresight.

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