Kids need sunglasses as much as—or more than—adults. Here’s why.
Kids’ eyes are marvels. Newborns can’t even focus on what’s directly in front of them, and yet children go on to sharpen sophisticated skills like depth perception and motion tracking.
But these developing eyes take a long time to do one thing: filter out ultraviolet radiation from the sun. That’s one reason vision experts want parents to know that UV-blocking sunglasses are essential to protecting children’s eyes. Not only are tots and grade schoolers more at risk from the sun’s harmful UV rays than adults, but they typically spend far more time outside than the rest of us.
“By nature of being children, they’re outside,” said Ashley Mills, CEO of the Vision Council, a trade organization for eyewear companies that researches sunglasses use. “That is a great thing, but they need to be protected.”
That may be a departure from how parents or grandparents grew up, when kids were less likely to wear sunglasses. Medical understanding of the ways UV radiation can damage children’s eyes has grown, and doctors now urge sunglasses for children just as they would sunscreen. It’s a recommendation they’ll be making more as the summer travel season approaches.
Still, caregivers need to be cautious when picking out sunglasses. Toy or novelty sunglasses, which won’t tout UV protection on the label, can put kids’ eyes at greater risk of sun damage. Here’s what you need to know about protecting children’s eyes.
UV exposure can cause damage from the eyelids all the way to the back of the eyeball.
We don’t tend to slather sunscreen on the skin right over our eyes, but it’s thin and delicate. Scorching it comes with an increased risk of skin cancer, says Rishi Singh, an ophthalmologist who serves as the president of Cleveland Clinic’s Martin North and South Hospitals in Florida.
Kids' eyes can also get sunburned, leading to redness, pain, a gritty feeling and sometimes temporary vision loss. Prolonged UV exposure can also damage the conjunctiva, a thin membrane that stretches over the front of the eye, leading to growths on the white of the eye or the cornea.
Right behind the iris, the crystalline lens sharpens the focus on light entering the eye. In babies, this lens is transparent and lets through more UV rays than an adults’ eye does.
UV exposure may lead to vision problems down the line, such as the early onset of cataracts. UV exposure in the retina can also increase the risk of advanced macular degeneration later in life.
Look for sunglasses with labels saying they offer 100 percent UVA/UVB protection, or UV400. Sunglasses makers must meet industry standards to make claims about UV protection.
Toy or novelty shades won’t have a label touting their ability to block UV rays. They also don’t come with a warning, so keep in mind that no label is a red flag for sun safety.
Dark sunglasses with no UV protection can be dangerous. They prompt the pupils to dilate, letting in even more of the sun’s damaging radiation than if your child was squinting in the sunlight.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates devices that offer sun protection, but there’s no federal sunglass inspector testing random samples of shades for UV filtering, says Michael Vitale, who specializes in government relations for the Vision Council. The organization advises parents to look for appropriate labeling from retailers they trust.
As long as they have 100 percent UV protection, the best sunglasses are the ones your child will actually wear, says Donny Suh, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Ophthalmology.
This can be a problem for younger kids, who may be irritated by something touching their nose and ear (or their eyelashes if the shades are sitting too close to the face). You can try sunglasses with flexible earpieces, or a wraparound strap that avoids touching the ears. You can also look for an optician who will adjust the sunglasses for a better fit.
If a child is truly averse, Suh says to avoid morning and mid-afternoon sunshine, when UV rays are strongest. Get your child a wide-brimmed hat and stay in shady areas for playtime.
Another problem Suh sees as a doctor is that some caregivers are reluctant to put sunglasses on their kids. Some may think it would tell the world there’s something wrong with their child, he says, or that it would make their kid feel different if they’re the only one wearing shades.
But the health risks of UV exposure to the eyes should outweigh these concerns, he says.
“We have to change this mindset,” Suh says. “We need a cultural change.”