As you're putting on sunscreen this summer, remember that your eyes are just as vulnerable as your skin is to sun damage. Consider:
• The eyelids are a common place where skin cancer can occur on the face. The most frequent type of eyelid cancer, occurring in 90 percent of cases, is basal cell carcinoma, which appears on the bottom eyelid in the majority of cases.
• Overexposure to sunlight can cause pterygia, wing-shaped growths on the surface of the eye's conjunctiva, the thin film that lines the surface of the eye and eyelids. A pterygium growth can interfere with vision and, if left untreated, may cause astigmatism or corneal scarring.
• Sun exposure is the No. 1 preventable factor in the development of macular degeneration, says Alberto Martinez, a practicing ophthalmologist in Bethesda, Md., and a clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among older Americans, affects the area of the retina responsible for central vision and detail.
• Studies have shown that those who don't take proper safety precautions in the sun face a higher incidence of cataracts.
Here's how to minimize your risk of developing serious damage, including cancer and macular degeneration:
• Wear sunglasses. Wraparound and fitted styles—the bigger the better—are best at limiting how much sunlight can enter the sides of your eyes. The color of the sunglasses is irrelevant; in fact, some very dark glasses may dilate the pupil, allowing more UV rays to enter the eye. The material and coating are what determine the UV protection, Martinez says. Look for polycarbonate and plastic lenses that block 97 to 100 percent of UVA rays and 100 percent of UVB.
• Wear a wide-brimmed hat, too. A baseball cap is fine, worn forward, as long as it blocks sunlight from reaching your eyes.
• Sunlight can penetrate through clouds and haze, according to the AAO's Eyesmart campaign website. UV rays can also be reflected off water and bright surfaces. While sunglasses should be worn at all times outdoors, it's particularly crucial to protect yourself in the early afternoon and at high altitudes.
• Artificial UV light can be even more damaging to your eyes than sunlight. If you go to the indoor tanning salon, make sure to use protective goggles to shield your eyes from the high levels of UV radiation.