Eye Protection

Your eyes don’t need a tan, people.

Today I got a call saying that my cousin was having his eye removed due to ocular melanoma – or skin cancer of the eye. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I’d actually never heard of ocular melanoma – but a quick web search garnered the surprising statistic that it’s the second most common form of melanoma (next to skin cancer), with around 2,500 new cases diagnosed each year in the US and proportionately lower numbers in Australia.

Ocular melanoma on the eye - Image source: Wikipedia
Ocular melanoma is the second most common form of melanoma.

Like other melanomas, it begins in melanocytes – the cells that produce the melanin that colours your skin, your hair and eyes. It can occur in your iris, choroid (the blood vessels in your eye), or – rarely – in the conjunctiva (the membrane that covers the outer surface of your eyeball) and
it accounts for approximately 5-12% of all melanomas.

Studies have suggested fair skin types might be particularly susceptible and excessive exposure to UV rays is a risk factor. Ocular melanoma happens slightly more often to guys and your risk increases with age.

The vitamin D factor.

Part of the reason my relative’s condition made me pause is that lately I’ve been (stupidly, it turns out) trying to raise my Vitamin D levels by spending extra time in the sun.

If you’re keeping up with research, you’ll know we’re currently experiencing a global vitamin D deficiency epidemic. For decades, we’ve been told that to cover up and lather on sunscreen when we’re out in the sun, and for good reason – skin cancer is deadly and largely avoidable by being more aware and careful about how much UV exposure we get.

Man sun bathing avoiding getting sunburnt - Image credit: Getty + Fred Morley
UV damage to your eyes is cumulative – so as a rule, wear sunglasses.

The problem is, we now know that vitamin D also regulates a wide range of cells, systems and organs throughout the body. Deficiency can result in obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoporosis and neuro-degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and problems with the immune system. There’s also some concern it might contribute to up to 17 serious forms of cancer.

Plus, it’s the only vitamin formed with the help of sunlight – exposing your skin to sunshine produces around 50-90% of your requirements (the rest comes from food).

And there’s the rub – current estimates say to maintain optimum levels for health you need to spend about 15-20 minutes in the sunshine with 40% of your skin unprotected (i.e. not just your hands), preferably in the middle of the day and at least 3 days per week.

Unveiling a Vitamin D myth.

Many years ago, a health professional told me that you absorb the most vitamin D by allowing sunshine to hit your eyes. Turns out that’s a myth – and a dangerous one at that.

A womans eye
Your vision is precious – please look after it.

In fact, the sun’s intense ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage the sensitive cells in your eyes and studies have shown that this damage is cumulative, making it more likely that you’ll develop vision problems later in life – like my cousin.

The moral of this story? There’s no level of UV exposure to your eyes safe enough to risk your vision. In fact, researchers estimate we receive 80% of our lifetime exposure to UV rays before age 18.

That’s because kids have larger pupils (allowing more light into their eyes), clearer lenses and are outside without eye protection much more frequently and for longer periods than most adults.

It’s a sobering thought.

UV protection. Not just for your skin.

It’s impossible to know if I’ve already done my dash when it comes to UV exposure to my eyes. I hope not. But from now on, anytime I venture outside, I’m wearing my UV protective, wrap around sunnies – period.

Discover how to choose the most protective sunglasses for your needs.