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What a lifetime of sun can do to your eyes

Sun safety is a hot topic over summer, but did you know that it is important to protect your eyes all year round? Ultraviolet (UV) light is present whenever we step outside during the day and while it is important for children to have a small level of exposure to sunlight to help prevent myopia, a lifetime of sun can have very risky consequences for your eye health and vision. A common result of UV exposure is a growth on the eye that is often referred to as Surfer’s Eye (pterygium). While usually benign, Surfer’s Eye has the potential to interfere with vision and can grow into something more harmful. UV exposure can also cause cancer of the eye and cancer on the delicate skin around the eye (including on the eyelid) which can result in irreparable eye damage, vision loss and, in extreme cases, death. There is also evidence that accumulative UV exposure can accelerate the progression of cataracts, making it difficult for patients to see through a cloudy lens that covers the pupil.

It is especially important to protect your eyes from sun damage when UV levels are high. Across Australia during the summer months there are long periods of the day when the UV level is three or above, presenting increased risk of UV damage. However, it is recommended that, if you spend a lot of time outdoors, you take care to protect your eyes all year round as cumulative exposure at lower UV levels can also result in serious eye damage.

The best way to protect your eyes from sun damage is to wear wrap around sunglasses, with the technology to cover peripheral vision, prevent UV radiation from passing through the lenses and reduce UV damage to the surface of the eye and eyelid.

It is also recommended that people spending long periods outdoors in the summer months invest in glasses labelled either “UV400” or “100 per cent UV protection”, classified by Australian standards as category 3 or 4. Many sunglasses have only only glare reduction and do not wrap around. While these may look more fashionable, many still let in dangerous UV light.

For more information about RANZCO’s position on UV Eye Protection, developed through a collaboration between Cancer Council Australia’s National Skin Cancer Committee and The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO), please see here.

Case study: John
John, age 67, grew up in the Sutherland Shire and got a lot of sun growing up, especially at the beach. He didn’t wear sunscreen, hat or sunglasses. It was this lifetime of unprotected sun exposure that lead to the emergence of growths developing on both eyes. The growths were soon diagnosed as Surfer’s Eye (pterygium). To begin with they were only a cosmetic issue. Two years later, the growth on John’s left eye had grown substantially and had become a cause for concern. Ophthalmologist Dr Daya Sharma performed eye surgery on John to remove the suspicious growth, thought to be a tumour. John also needed to undergo cryotherapy (freezing therapy), and six months of postoperative chemotherapy eye drops. Pathology results confirmed that the growth was a squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) in situ, which is one small step away from being a dangerous and invasive cancer of the eye. Furthermore, due to a sun filled lifestyle, John now has a history of skin cancer on his face and was also required to have a sun related growth surgically removed from his eyelid. John has also undergone cataract surgery on both eyes. Cataracts are known to progress more quickly in people who, throughout their lifetime, have had a significant amount of UV exposure. John now knows the importance of protecting his eyes with UV-blocking wrap around sunglasses, but is keen to tell his story so that other people, especially young people, will protect their eyes properly and hopefully avoid experiencing the kind of problems he has.
“Many people with UV-related diseases of the eye grew up at a time when the importance of wearing wraparound UV-blocking sunglasses was not recognised. Now we are very aware of the fact that UV protection of the eyes from childhood onwards can reduce the risk of these diseases, and prevention is better than cure.” – Dr Daya Sharma

John's eye before surgery

John’s eye before surgery

John's eye after surgery

John’s eye after surgery

Case study: Patricia
Patricia, age 86 grew up in Northern Ireland and spent a lot of time outside playing sport including tennis and athletics, without sun protection. Patricia explained that, at that time, there was no discussion about sun safety other than wearing a hat to avoid sun burn. Patricia’s long-term exposure to UV light has resulted in several cancers appearing on and around her eyes. Patricia has needed to undergo surgery several times to remove the cancers and, more recently, a reconstruction procedure. In December 2018, Patricia needed radiation treatments to manage the recurring cancers resulting from her lifetime in the sun. Patricia is now very conscious about sun safety and wears wrap around sunglasses with full UV protection when she is exposed to UV light.

Dr Daya Sharma and each of the patients are available for an interview. 

For more information, contact Jen Miguel at on 02 9690 1001.


Last updated: May 4, 2020

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