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Winter Sun Safety Awareness

Common Misconceptions

Summer is worse than winter.
False. UV rays are stronger at higher elevations and reflect off snow.

Cloudy days are safe
False. The sun's rays can pass through haze and clouds, so you still are exposed to potentially high UV rays.

Looking directly at the sun is safe unless it is an eclipse
False. Looking directly at the sun at any time can damage the retina from solar radiation.

Dangers of Ultraviolet Rays

UV radiation, both from natural sunlight and from indoor artificial UV rays, can damage both the cornea on the surface of the eye, as well as the internal parts of the eye, such as the lens and retina. Possible consequences of UV exposure:2

  • Cataracts that can cause vision loss and blindness
  • Corneal sunburn that can cause temporary vision loss
  • Skin cancer around eyelids
  • Abnormal growths (“Pterygium”) on the white of the eye

Be extra careful if you are on certain medications, have had prior surgery for cataracts or age-related macular degeneration, or if you have light-colored eyes or a family history of eye cancer.

Higher Altitude = Higher Risk

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology these four factors increase the risk for eye damage with high-altitude and/or winter snow sports:

  1. Sun reflecting off snow can be harsh.
  2. UV radiation can be high on cloudy days.
  3. UV exposure increases with elevation.
  4. Cold, dry and windy conditions on the slopes.

What Is Snow Blindness?

Snow blindness is a severe type of photokeratitis caused by exposure to UV rays reflected from ice and snow, particularly at high elevation. Much like a sunburn, it is usually not noticed until after the damage is done. Symptoms include blurry vision, swelling, and watery eyes. Snow blindness may also refer to freezing and/or severe drying of the cornea’s surface from extremely dry air. Read more here.

What Can You Do?

The single most important thing to do is to protect your eyes with sunglasses that block 100% of UV rays and snow goggles that block UV rays and protect from dry, freezing wind. When you're skiing or snowboarding, the American Academy of Ophthalmology advises goggles with polycarbonate lenses which offer protection from both the sun and eye injury. When you're not skiing or snowboarding, wrap-around sunglasses are likely to be sufficient.

Here are additional tips from the American Academy of Ophthalmology:

  • Be aware that harmful UV rays can pass through clouds and hazy conditions.
  • Be aware that the sun is strongest between midday and early afternoon.
  • Be aware that UV rays are stronger at higher altitudes and when reflected off water, ice or snow.
  • Never look directly at the sun!

Did You Know?

Alaskan Inuits carved snow goggles, with a narrow slit to let light in, from antlers, bone, and wood to protect their eyes from UV rays. Read more here.

Learn More

The Sun, UV Light, and Your Eyes (Accessed 4-29-22); 2. Winter UV Eye Safety, American Academy of Ophthalmology (Accessed 4-29-22); Protecting Your Eyes from Solar Radiation. American Optometric Association (Accessed 4-29-22).