After eye surgery for sun damage, Camila Alves McConaughey urges fans to ‘wear sunglasses.’ Here’s what you need to know.

·5 min read
Camila Alves McConaughey, pictured here in 2020, just warned fans about sun damage to the eyes. Doctors explain what you need to know. (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for WCRF)
Camila Alves McConaughey, pictured here in 2020, just warned fans about sun damage to the eyes. Doctors explain what you need to know. (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for WCRF)

In the months leading up to summer, dermatologists offer warnings about the potential damage of UV rays to the skin. But unbeknownst to many, the eyes are similarly vulnerable — something that Camila Alves McConaughey learned firsthand. 

In a series of Instagram posts this week, the Brazilian-American actor and model — who's married to Matthew McConaughey — shared images of herself in a hospital bed with her eyes covered.

"Had to have an eye surgery...Not laser so a bit more involved," she wrote in a post on Wednesday. The next day she added another depicting her in eye goggles that she said are a part of her recovery. "I am feeling good guys...JUST REMEMBER to wear your sunglasses," McConaughey ended the post. 

So what exactly is sun damage to the eyes, and is it something that you should be worried about this summer? Yahoo Life spoke with three experts to find out what you need to know.

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The sun can cause "significant damage" to the eyes over time

Dr. Annie Nguyen, an ophthalmologist with USC Roski Eye Institute, Keck Medicine of USC, says that the sun can be more damaging to the eyes than many realize. "While light is needed for sight and provides some benefit to your sleep-wake cycle, certain types of light, particularly ultraviolet A (UV-A) and ultraviolet B (UV-B) light can cause significant damage to the eye over time if not guarded against," Nguyen tells Yahoo Life. "Damage to the eyes may occur anywhere from the skin around the eyes to the deepest of the eyes called the retina. Sun damage to the eyes has a cumulative effect."

Aaron B. Zimmerman, a professor of clinical optometry at the Ohio State University, expresses similar concerns. "The eyelids are susceptible to UV radiation just like the rest of your skin. As we age, and the cumulative exposure of UV perpetually increases, damage such as basal cell carcinoma, etc can occur," says Zimmerman. "This is not super common, but illustrates the importance of sun protection."

Eye problems caused by the sun can range from an inflamed cornea to cataracts

Nguyen says there are five main types of sun damage to the eyes, all with varying degrees of severity, and breaks them down this way: 

  • Skin cancers of the eyelids. "Similar to the rest of your body, your eyelid skin is sensitive prolonged or extended sun exposure and may not only suffer from sunburn but also different types of skin cancers including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma."

  • Something called "pterygium." "Pterygium, also known as surfer’s eye, is a condition in which the protective outer layers of the white part of the eye, called the conjunctiva, becomes irritated and inflamed from prolonged UV exposure (especially when reflected off of the surface of water or snow) and grows towards the center of the eye."

  • Keratitis. "Keratitis, or inflammation of the cornea, may occur from excessive exposure to UV light, similar to a sunburn. The cornea is important for focusing light as it enters the eye and directs light to the retina in order for you to see. Over time, keratitis may lead to irreversible damage and vision loss."

  • Cataracts. "Cataracts, or clouding of the natural lens in the eye, occur typically with age. However, with chronic exposure to UV light, the process can be hastened prematurely."

  • Macular degeneration. "The macula is the center of the retina in the back of your eyes and is responsible for sharp, detailed vision. As sunlight enters the eye, most of the harmful UV rays are filled by the lens of eye, however prolonged and direct sun exposure may lead to damage to the macula and retina."

Signs and symptoms to watch out for include yellowing of the eyes and non-healing lesions

Dr. William T. Reynolds, president of the American Optometric Association, says that "the majority of visible sun damage will be visible on the lids and the conjunctiva (clear covering over the white part of the eye)." He suggests paying close attention to "non-healing lesions or new pigmented spots on the eyelids or the white part of the eye," as well as "yellow-pigmented areas on the conjunctiva." 

Nguyen adds that "bumps or lumps on the eyelid that bleed and do not heal," should be cause for concern, as should "sudden loss of eyelashes" or "dryness, itching, burning, light sensitivity and blurry vision."

People with lighter eyes are more at risk, but no one is risk-free

Zimmerman notes that people with lighter eyes should be extra cautious. "Generally lighter pigmented individuals are at higher risk of suffering peri-ocular UV damage," says Zimmerman. "But with excessive exposures, anyone is susceptible to UV-related tissue damage."

Nugyen expands. "Lighter-colored eyes (e.g. blue, green or hazel eyes) have less pigment to protect against sun damage and UV radiation compared to darker-colored eyes and may be more at risk for sun damage, similar to fairer skin types being more at risk than darker skin types to sunburns and skin cancer," she says. "However, prolonged, unprotected sun exposure may cause some degree of damage to all types of eyes; therefore adequate sun protection is recommended for everyone despite eye or skin color."

Sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats offer the best protection

"A proper pair of sunglasses is critical for protecting your eyes from the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation," says Reynolds. "Sunglasses can be fashionable, but they also need to be functional. No matter the season or the location, the American Optometric Association (AOA) recommends wearing high-quality sunglasses that adequately protect the eyes by blocking out 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays, and by screening out 75 to 90 percent of visible light. Wear sunglasses whenever you are outdoors, whether you are working, driving, participating in sports, taking a walk, running errands or doing anything in the sun."

Ngyuen agrees. "Choose sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV or UV400 protection, or block both UVA and UVB rays," says Nugyen. "Consider wearing a broad-brimmed hat along with your sunglasses. Wear sunscreen on your face and don’t forget your eyelids."

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