One thing is clear: Canadians love their shades, not just for their cool factor but also for their ability to dim the glare of the sun. What Canadians aren’t so clear about is how the sun’s ultraviolet radiation—commonly known as UV rays—can cause short- and long-term damage to their eyes. Many will be even more surprised to learn that their contact lenses can provide protection from these harmful UV rays.

“The average contact lens provides 10 percent to 20 percent UV protection,” explains Dr. Stephen Cohen, an eye physician and surgeon in Tucson, Arizona. “There are also a few select lenses on the market that offer the highest
levels of UV protection, as much as 100 percent.”

A real risk of damage

Most people today are aware that overexposing themselves to the sun can lead to premature aging of the skin, skin disorders, and even skin cancer.  But when it comes to the effect of sun on the eyes, many people are still in the dark.

“The average contact lens provides 10 percent to 20 percent UV protection.”

Case in point: ever heard of photokeratitis? It’s not exactly a household term but it’s something that happens to a lot of people—sunburn of the eye with symptoms that include redness, sensitivity to light, and teary eyes. Prolonged exposure to UV rays can also cause blurred vision, changes in colour perception, cataracts that literally cloud the lens of the eye, and macular degeneration—damage to the retina that leads to vision loss.

Triad of protection

To prevent sun damage to the eyes, Dr. Cohen recommends a “triad of protection” that includes a brimmed hat, sunglasses that filter UV rays, and contact lenses—for those who wear them—with UV-blocking capabilities. Health Canada also advises avoiding exposure to bright sunlight, particularly between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the summer months, when the sun’s rays are strongest.

While sunglasses with high-level UV blocking can go a long way towards preventing sun-damaged eyes, they’re not enough, says Dr. Cohen.

“Even those with 100 percent protection will block only the UV that reaches the glasses, but not the UV that come in from the sides of the glasses, or from underneath,” he says.

People who wear contacts can get extra sun protection for their eyes by choosing lenses with high UV blocking. Dr. Cohen points to next-generation lenses that can block UV by as much as 80 to 100 percent. These lenses, which are meant for day and nighttime use, have a clear, non-tinted coating that provides an invisible layer of protection without adding weight or thickness.

“This is the equivalent of sunscreen for your eyes,” says Dr. Cohen. “If you wear contact lenses, then this is something you need to have.”

Tips on non-prescription cosmetic contact lenses:

  • Seek an eye care professional who will provide you with a proper contact lens assessment.
  • Never wear lenses that are torn or discoloured. Always inspect contact lenses before using them. Cosmetic contact lenses purchased from a non-regulated source could be defective, used, expired, and may not be approved in Canada or the United States.
  • Never share lenses with others. Swapping contact lenses significantly increases the risk of lens contamination and the spread of infection.
  • Do not sleep in contact lenses unless you have been provided with an appropriate extended wear lens by a licensed eye care professional.