Summer is a time when many people find themselves spending time outdoors, enjoying our beautiful Southern California weather with loved ones. Most people understand the importance of protecting your skin from the sun, but far less understand the importance of protecting your eyes from harmful UV rays. During the summer months, many people flock to tanning salons to try and get a “base” layer tan before a beach vacation, never considering the potential for damaging our ocular structures.
Tanning salons use indoor tanning beds, or sun beds, to imitate the UV production of the sun to create melanin (a sun tan) in a faster way than the sun. The light technology produces a combination of UV light, and has long been known as a risk factor for developing skin cancer later in life, but can the tanning beds harm the eyes, as well? A recent study looked at trying to answer this very question.
What the authors of the study wanted to know was can the UV radiation from the tanning bed harm the eyes, and if so, to what degree. The study was conducted over a 15-day period of using tanning beds. The participants were volunteers that used the beds 10 times for 10 minute intervals.
The findings? The tanning beds altered the surface of the eye called the cornea, the clear part just in front of the iris and pupil, very important for vision. The interesting (and disturbing) part is the damage done was not able to be appreciated by a normal examination. The damage was only appreciated with a microscope, and some of the damage was permanent. This tells us tanning beds may be more harmful, long term, than once thought.
Tanning beds (and UV light in general) can damage the internal ocular structures in addition to the ocular surface. In 2009, a patient went to study abroad and used tanning beds while in Holland. The patient didn’t receive any protective eyewear while using the sun beds, and opened her eyes a few times while tanning. When she returned home, she visited her optometrist, and discovered she had permanently impaired her retina, similar to staring directly at the sun. This is a disease called solar maculopathy, and does irreversible damage to the internal structures of the eye. Her left eye now sees 20/300 or about 20 times worse than normal.
The moral of the story is tanning beds pose inherent risks. You should always consult your doctor before using one, and if you plan to do so in the future, understand your eyes are at risk of subclinical damage which may be permanent. UV damage has long been known to cause ocular diseases, whether they be acute or chronic, but we are now just discovering the damage artificial light may cause. Any time you are outside during daylight, it is a good idea to protect yourself from the sun, especially your eyes.
For those who spend a lot of time in the sun, you may be interested to find out your eyes and skin are most vulnerable at different times of the day. While many apps have measurements for the ultraviolet index telling us when our skin is most susceptible for damage, not as much data is available for ocular damage.
“Why do we need a separate system for measuring UV light damage and the eye?”
Sun rays travel in waves. When the sun is highest in the sky (summer time and roughly 10:00 am to 2:00 pm) the UV index is highest, and your skin is the most sensitive to damage. At the same time, your ocular system is designed to protect you BEST at this time of day. Your brow bone covers your eyes, preventing most direct light from entering the eyes and damaging the internal structures.
So when is the eye most vulnerable? It turns out, when the sun is lower on the horizon (sunrise, sunset, and winter), sunlight has an easier time directly entering the eye damaging the internal structures, as well as some of the external ocular tissues. This means wearing your sunglasses is not only important during the warmest parts of the day, but any time your eyes are in direct sunlight, and especially around sunrises and sunsets. Clouds don’t protect you either. In fact, they give us a false sense of protection, and can be the culprit of some of the worst UV damage.
What are some repercussions of sun damage when it comes to the eyes?
Sunglasses can help to reduce progression, or prevent the development of these common ocular diseases. Next time you have a fun day planned, remember to bring your UV protection (and not just for your skin!)