There is well-established evidence that long-term overexposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun can lead to eye damage such as cataracts. Sunglasses are an effective method of UVR protection for the eyes.
Health effects from solar UVR
Based on scientific evidence, ARPANSA and other national and international health authorities, including the World Health Organization, consider that continual exposure to UVR from the sun causes harmful effects to the skin, eyes and immune system.
Long-term exposure to UVR can cause serious damage to eyes, such as clouding in the lens, known as cataracts, which impair vision. Short-term overexposure to UVR can result in acute photo-keratitis, better known as snow-blindness. Children are particularly at risk as UVR can penetrate deeper into the eye and cause increased damage to the lens or retina.
UVR is invisible so the use of sunglasses to reduce or eliminate UVR, in particular the more-damaging UVB radiation, is highly desirable. Reducing the amount of UVR that the eyes are exposed to over a lifetime is beneficial in preventing eye damage.
Sunglasses that comply with the Australian sunglass standard provide the eyes with substantial protection against solar UVR and are recommended for both children and adults, particularly the wrap-around type that give UVR protection from the sides.
Direct, scattered and reflected solar UVR
Apart from UVR that reaches us directly from the sun, there is a large amount of UVR reflected to the earth’s surface from molecules and particles in the atmosphere, known as scattered UVR. For most of the day there is as much scattered UVR from the sky as there is from the direct sun. UVR can also be reflected onto us from surfaces such as snow, water, concrete and buildings. To provide the best eye protection, direct, scattered and reflected solar UVR need to be considered in our choice of sunglasses.
When to wear sunglasses?
Wear sunglasses outdoors, particularly:
The level of UVR at noon in summer can be more than three times higher than in winter.
Under high glare conditions
Sunglasses reduce glare as well as UVR, particularly sunglasses with polarised lenses.
Near highly reflective surfaces
Water, glass, metals, white sand and snow can all reflect more UVR into your eyes.
On the beach or boating
Apart from direct and scattered UVR you may be exposed to increased levels of UVR due to reflections from the water.
Skiing at high altitude
Solar UVR increases with altitude and in Australian ski fields it can be as much as thirty percent higher than at sea level. The high reflectivity of snow worsens the problem, so that the UVR dose to an unprotected eye can be quite large. Consequently, good eye protection while skiing is very important.
Sunglasses and lenses
Sunglass lenses are made from a variety plastics and glass. Plastic lenses, such as acrylic and polycarbonate, are light and impact resistant and most are naturally UVR-absorbing. Glass lenses can have excellent optical quality and are more scratch resistant. It is the UVR-absorbing properties of the material that the lenses are made from that provides the UVR protection and not the colour or tint of the lenses. Dark tinted sunglasses are not necessarily more effective at protecting the eyes from UVR than lightly tinted sunglasses.
The colour and amount of tint varies between products and the darker the lenses the more they reduce visible light and glare. Non-prescription glasses with light tints with category 0 or category 1 ratings are called fashion spectacles and provide little or no UVR absorption or glare reduction. Sunglasses have darker tints than fashion spectacles and are labelled as category 2, 3 or 4 sunglasses.
Very dark or highly-coloured lenses may affect your ability to see clearly during activities like driving and recognising traffic lights. Category 2 and 3 sunglasses are recommended for everyday use, while category 4 sunglasses are very dark special purpose sunglasses that are recommended for use in high glare environments such as at sea, on snowfields, in deserts or on mountains.
Polarised lenses are popular as they reduce glare from many reflective surfaces and help to alleviate eyestrain.
Sunglasses and driving
Sunglasses are not recommended for driving at night, in twilight or under dull light conditions. Some sunglasses and fashion spectacles may be marked as 'not suitable for driving and road use' and must not be used for driving at any time.
Sunglasses that are not suitable for driving will be marked accordingly with a picture of a car with a cross through it:
Australian standards for sunglasses
Why buy sunglasses that are tested to Australian standards?
There is a mandatory safety standard for sunglasses and fashion spectacles in Australia. Since 1 July 2019, all sunglasses and fashion spectacles, including uniformly tinted, polarizing, photochromic and gradient tinted lenses sold in Australia must be tested and labelled according to the Australian/New Zealand Standard for Sunglasses and Fashion Spectacles (AS/NZS 1067.1:2016 Eye and face protection: Sunglasses and fashion spectacles). This standard sets limits for the allowable light and UVR transmittances of fashion spectacles and sunglasses in both adults and children’s sizes.
Sunglasses tested to Australian requirements offer more UVR protection than sunglasses tested to international standards. Wearing sunglasses that meet the requirements of the Australian standard ensures that your eyes have adequate protection against UVR damage.
For outdoor workers, tinted eye protectors are available that meet the Australian standard for occupational eye protectors (AS/NZS 1337 Personal eye protection: Eye and face protectors for occupational applications) and provide UVR protection and reduced glare outdoors. Untinted eye protectors marked 'O' also have sufficient UVR protection for outdoor use. Eye protectors are not assessed for their suitability for driving.
Guidelines for purchasing sunglasses
Buy Australian Sunglasses to ensure your eyes have UVR protection.
- Check that the glasses are labelled as either 'sunglasses' or as 'special purpose sunglasses' and not as 'fashion spectacles'.
- Sunglasses must have a label that states that they comply with the requirements of the Australian/New Zealand Standard for Sunglasses and Fashion Spectacles, AS/NZS 1067.1.
- If the glasses are to be used while driving, then check that all colours, especially traffic lights, are easily recognisable when viewed through the lenses. Sunglasses that are not suitable for driving must have a label that states this.
- There should be clear and legible labelling attached to the sunglasses with the identity of the manufacturer or supplier, the lens category number, description and driving suitability. The label should also refer to Australian standard AS/NZS 1067.1.
- Never look directly at the sun. Sunglasses do not reduce the risk of severe eye damage from looking at the sun.
- When outdoors, remember the other sun protection measures: hats, sun protective clothing, and sunscreen and seek shade in the middle of the day.
- Product Safety Australia Mandatory Safety Standard for sunglasses and fashion spectacles
- Australian Standards AS/NZS 1067 Sunglasses and fashion spectacles
- Australian Standards AS/NZS 1337.1 Eye and face protectors for occupational applications
- Sunglass testing manufacturers, find out how to get your sunglasses tested to Australian standards
- World Health Organization provides international advice on sun protection
- Cancer Council Australia provides advice on preventing cancer in Australia through national, state and territory SunSmart programs and activities