Eyes on sun safety: How to protect your children’s sight

Last term Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Primary Kingsgrove became one of the first schools in NSW to make highly protective sunglasses an optional part of their school uniform.

Opthalmologist and Clinical Lecturer at The University of Sydney Dr Alina Zeldovich tells us why more schools, and parents, should follow their lead.

UV light damages the eyes, just as it does the skin

“Sunglasses are important for preventing significant eye diseases later in life,” Dr Zeldovich said. “As an ophthalmologist I treat and see a lot of eye conditions that could have been prevented by using maximum protective sunglasses as a child.”

These include skin cancers on the eyelid and eyelid margin where sunscreen can’t be applied, growths on the eyeballs called pinguecula pteryigum and some types of cataract, which are the leading cause of blindness in the world and require surgery to remove.

Research completed by Dr Zeldovich’s colleague and fellow ophthalmologist Dr Shanel Sharma used ultraviolet fluorescence photography (UVFP) to detect sun damage to the eyes of children in preschool, primary school and high school.

She found that between the age of 9 and 11 years, 30 per cent of children had photographic evidence of damage to their eyes. By the age of 12 and up to the age of 15, that became 81 per cent. Within that age group 30 per cent of the children tested already had actual disease.

“There is overwhelming evidence that UV damages eyes,” Dr Zeldovich said. Children should be educated, trained and encouraged to wear sunglasses whenever they are outdoors.

“There is no minimum age, because the younger you are the more UV light penetrates the eyes. UV light [a component of sunlight] is invisible, and it’s present all year round.”

What to look for in a pair of sunglasses

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists published a statement encouraging parents and schools to enforce sunglass wearing as part of a sun safe strategy in January this year.

Ophthalmologists recommend that parents ensure their children wear broad brimmed hats when they’re outdoors, as well as sunglasses that:

  • are rated Category 3 of the Australian Standards for UV protection
  • have a wraparound frame, designed to minimise unfiltered side light entering the eye
  • have lenses with UV 400 protection
  • have lens coatings to block reflected light from entering the eye; and
  • have polarised lenses

Filtering through

“Unfortunately the sunglasses market has been predominantly a fashion market, so the push for kids getting sunglasses is usually a cartoon character that they’ve seen,” Dr Zeldovich said. “We’re trying to bring it back to the fact that sunglasses do prevent UV damage – they serve a purpose.”

“Adults are often outdoors wearing sunglasses and if you look around at the beach or the park or the playground on the weekend the kids have nothing shielding their eyes.

“We know that once children get into a routine at an early age they are more likely to follow that through later in life. When I was at school there were no hats at school. Now you wouldn’t dream of sending your child outside without a hat and sunblock.”

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