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Monica Derevjanik/MEDILL

Ultraviolet radiation is three to eight times stronger than natural sunlight.

Tanners beware: UV rays can harm your eyes, too

by Monica Derevjanik
April 30, 2009


Monica Derevjanik/MEDILL

Tanning goggles are both inexpensive and highly protective against ultraviolet rays.


Courtesy of National Eye Institute

Cataracts can occur after years of ultraviolet radiation.


Courtesy of National Eye Institute

The difference between normal vision and vision with cataracts.

Indoor tanners may be aware of ultraviolet-related skin diseases, but there’s a less obvious risk that many people don’t consider before taking a step into the booth. They may be setting themselves up for eye injuries.

“Usually I get worried about getting burned because it means I have a greater chance of getting skin cancer,” said Brittany Bendoff, 18, of Long Grove, who goes tanning three or four times a week.

Like many people who go tanning, Bendoff’s primary concern is what the ultraviolet rays can do to her skin—not her eyes.

That’s why Prevent Blindness America, the nation's leading volunteer eye health and safety organization, is declaring the month of May “Ultraviolet Awareness Month.”

Hundreds of people are affected by ultraviolet-related eye injuries each year, but many don’t realize it right away, said Prevent Blindness America spokeswoman Sarah Hecker.

“The damaging effects of UV rays may not develop until years later,” she said. “In fact, UV damage is cumulative and has been linked to cataracts and macular degeneration later in life.”

UV rays are usually absorbed by parts in the front of the eye, such as the cornea and lens, but the rays can reach as far back as the retina.

Prolonged exposure to these rays can cause painful “sunburns” to the cornea, also known as photokeratitis, which can result in loss of vision for a couple of days. Long-term problems, such as cataracts—clouding of the lens—and macular degeneration—a loss of vision in the center of the visual field—can happen after years of exposure.

Growths on both the eyelid and the white of the eye can occur as well. Pterygium, for example, is a growth of tissue that forms on the eye surface. Without treatment, this condition may require surgery,  according  to Dr. Amy Lin, who is a corneal specialist at Loyola University Health System and an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine

“Fortunately, protecting the eyes and vision is easy and does not have to be expensive,” Hecker said.

Illinois law requires indoor tanners to wear some form of eye protection.

At A Better Tan tanning salon in Andersonville, goggles run between $3 to $8 and protective eye stickers, also known as “Winkies,” are only 50 cents.

But this doesn’t stop people from sacrificing odd white eye circles for healthy eyes, according to Alan Reed, who manages the salon.

“You can tell when people aren’t actually using it, so we bring that up and tell them that their eyelids are too thin to block UV rays,” he said. “While you may not like the cosmetic look of the raccoon eye, if you just take some self tanner and put it on Q-tip and then dab some under your eye, it will alleviate those white circles easily.”

Reed always tells clients who try to avoid eyewear a story about friend who needed eye surgery.

“He used to tan for years and years and never used eye protection. Then after all those years, he needed to get cataract surgery and it was painful. Maybe these tanners won’t be affected immediately, but they could be in the long run.”

While UV rays are three to eight times stronger than the sun, eye protection should continue outside of the tanning booth, according to  ophthalmologist William Mayo, spokesman for the Chicago-based American Osteopathic Association..

“At the beach, people get more sun exposure because the sun reflects off the sand and water,” the Oxford, Miss. eye doctor stated. “This is why people definitely need sunglasses and hat for sun protection during a day at the beach.”

There are two types of UV rays that affect the skin: UVB rays are damaging to the eye because they have a higher amount of energy, Lin said, but UVA rays penetrate deeper and can reach the retina.

The first thing tanners should look for are lenses that block at least 99 percent of UVB rays and 95 percent of UVA rays, according to Loyola's Lin.

“You should avoid lenses that do not mention UV protection, or have a vague description of UV protection,” she added.

And don’t stop wearing those sunglasses once summer ends, said Mayo.

“Good eye health continues into the winter since a popular seasonal activity is even worse than a day at the beach in terms of sun exposure: skiing,” he said. “When people don’t wear goggles, they can wake up with pain in their eyes because their eyes are burnt. White snow reflects more than sand at the beach."