Did you know your eyes – your literal eye balls, not just the skin around them – can get sunburned? Well, they can – kind of. To help protect your eyes from the sun, the Food & Drug Administration just cleared contact lenses that act like sunglasses.
Aside from the intense sun exposure that can cause eye sunburns (also known as photokeratitis), even the occasional failure to remember your sunglasses on a bright day can cause problems for your eyes, Jessica Lee, a board-certified ophthalmologist, and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, tells Allure.
“Too much exposure to UV light chronically can increase the risk of developing eye diseases such as cataracts, eye cancers, and growths on the skin of the eye,” she says. So yeah, keeping your eyes protected from harmful UV rays is just as important as religiously keeping up with your sun cream routine.
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To that end, researchers have developed light-adaptive contact lenses, which darken when exposed to bright light – just like glasses with Transitions lenses. The Acuvue Oasys Contact Lenses with Transitions Light Intelligent Technology, which were officially FDA-cleared this week after a clinical study of 24 patients, are the first of their kind.
Here’s how they work: As your light environments change throughout the day, the contacts react to keep the light entering your eyes continually balanced – inside, they’re clear just like any normal contact lenses, but walk outside into the sun and they’ll darken as if you were wearing sunglasses. The key is a photochromatic technology, which helps filter the amount of visible light that reaches the eye. They also help filter out the blue light emitted from your screens, according to a statement from Johnson & Johnson, Acuvue’s parent company.
The technology has some major potential. “Because these contact lenses reduce the amount of UV light reaching the lens and the retina (the back of the eye), they may help to reduce the risk of developing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration,” says Lee.
They shouldn’t, however, replace your sunglasses. “Although these newly approved contact lenses will [reduce] the amount of sunlight entering through the pupil, they don’t cover the entire surface of the front part of the eye,” Lee explains.
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In other words, while they may help protect the retina, there’s still the risk of developing cancer on the surface of the eye, which may still be exposed to UV light. As Lee mentioned, too much sun exposure can also cause pterygiums – “growths of fleshy tissue” on the surface of the eye that can obstruct your vision, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The contacts also don’t do anything to protect the surrounding skin on your lids like sunnies do, so remembering to apply SPF to your eye area becomes even more important.
The best thing you can do to protect your eyes from the sun is to pick out an ophthalmologist-approved pair of sunglasses. “Look for sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays,” says Lee. “This includes sunglasses that are labeled as ‘UV 400,’ which block all light rays with wavelengths up to 400 nanometers and covers all UVA and UVB rays.”
The darkness of the lenses themselves isn’t actually relevant to this, she adds. “Darker sunglasses decrease the amount of visible light but not necessarily UV rays (which are invisible),” Lee explains. Finally, make sure your sunglasses aren’t expiredto keep your eyes protected all summer.