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Children's sunglasses: Choosing the best sun protection for kids

boy laying on beach towel wearing sunglasses
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Do children really need sunglasses?

According to most eye doctors and researchers, the answer is an emphatic, "Yes."

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation and blue light (also called high-energy visible, or HEV, light) from sunlight appear to increase the risk of multiple age-related eye problems, including cataracts and macular degeneration.

Researchers say the more exposure you've had to the sun's harmful UV rays and blue light during your lifetime, the more at risk you may be for these sight-threatening conditions.

Because children tend to spend more time outdoors than most adults, some researchers say  nearly half of a person's lifetime UV exposure can take place by age 18.  

Also, children are more susceptible to damage to the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye from UV rays because the lens inside a child's eye is less capable of blocking UV than an adult lens, enabling more of this harmful radiation to penetrate deep into the eye.

And nearly all high-energy blue light reaches the retinas of children and adults alike, because the cornea and

of the human eye are not capable of absorbing these rays, which have been shown to damage photosensitive cells of the retina in laboratory studies.

These factors make it very important for all children — even infants — to wear UV- and HEV-blocking sunglasses anytime they are outdoors in daylight hours. This is true even on cloudy and overcast days, because most UV rays (which are invisible) and some HEV rays can penetrate cloud cover.

By investing in quality children's sunglasses, you are helping your child enjoy a lifetime of good vision.

Children's sunglasses and UV protection

According to Prevent Blindness America, children's sunglasses should block 99 to 100 percent of the sun's UV rays that reach the Earth (UVA and UVB).

Youth sunglasses

You don't have to spend a lot for high-quality sunglasses that protect your children's eyes from harmful UV rays. Shown here are Explorer and Sky, both by Real Kids Shades.

UVA is lower-energy ultraviolet radiation that can penetrate skin and eyes more deeply. UVA rays tan your skin, but they also cause your skin to wrinkle and show other signs of "photo-aging." And because UVA rays can penetrate the eye, they have been implicated in the development of both cataracts and macular degeneration.

UVA rays account for up to 95 percent of solar UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface.

UVB is higher energy ultraviolet radiation that causes your skin to burn. The cornea blocks most UVB rays from entering the eye, protecting internal eye tissues from these high-energy rays. But overexposure to UVB rays can cause a serious and painful sunburn of the cornea called photokeratitis ("snow blindness").

Also, both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer of the face, including the delicate skin of the eyelids and the area around the eyes. UV exposure also has been associated with growths on the surface of the eye called pingueculae and pterygia.

Be wary of children's sunglasses with labels that say only that the lenses, "block UV rays" and don't specify the actual percentage of UV radiation the lenses absorb.

If you are unsure of the level of UV protection your child's sunglasses provide, take them to an eye care professional to be evaluated

Recommended features for children's sunglasses

In addition to having lenses that block virtually 100 percent of the sun's UVA and UVB rays and a significant amount of potentially harmful blue light, most eye doctors recommend children's sunglasses also have these desirable features:

  • Impact-resistant lensesThe best lenses for children's sunglasses are made of polycarbonate. Polycarbonate lenses are up to 10 times more impact-resistant than standard plastic lenses for superior eye protection during and other play. Polycarbonate lenses also are lighter than glass or standard plastic lenses for greater wearing comfort.
  • Secure, properly fitting frames For the best protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays and to keep dust and other debris from getting in your child's eyes, a relatively large yet close-fitting frame is the best design for children's sunglasses.
  • Spring hingesHinges that extend beyond 90 degrees and have a spring action to keep the fit of the frame snug will decrease the risk of your child's sunglasses falling off or getting damaged during sports and other play.
  • An elastic bandAn elastic band that attaches to the end of each of the frame's temples can help prevent loss or damage to children's sunglasses. Choices include a close-fitting band to keep the frame snugly attached to the head during active sports or a looser-fitting strap to allow your child to remove his or her sunglasses yet keep them hanging from the neck for easy on-and-off use. Avoid the use of a band or cord that might pose a choking risk for an unattended infant or toddler.

For superior UV protection, it's also a good idea for kids to wear a wide-brimmed hat as well as sunglasses when spending a lot of time outdoors on sunny days. Researchers say a hat that shades the eyes and face can cut the amount of UV exposure in half.

And don't forget the sunscreen, too!

Beware of cheap sunglasses for children

Many inexpensive children's sunglasses provide excellent UV protection. This is especially true if they include polycarbonate lenses, because the polycarbonate lens material blocks 100 percent of UV rays without the need for added lens filters or coatings.

But cheap sunglasses for kids can pose other risks. Occasionally, brands of cheap sunglasses for children can include an unacceptable level of lead. And cheap children's sunglasses often are not as durable as high-quality sunglasses for children.

Start with an eye exam

Before you buy sunglasses for your child, schedule an eye exam with an eye doctor near you.

Kids' eyes can change rapidly, so make sure your child is seeing well and, if necessary, has an updated eyeglasses prescription that can be used for prescription sunglasses or photochromic lenses.

Page updated June 2019

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