Why Australian parents should care about protecting their children's eyes this summer

Lee Pepper, Registered Optometrist at Vision Excellence Optometry & Orthokeratology

As the mercury dials up with the start of summer, most Australian parents know how important it is to ensure their children wear sunscreen. However, the effect that Ultraviolet Radiation can have on young eyes is often overlooked.
A recent study by ZEISS found a majority of Australians (73 percent) are unaware that most damage to the eyes from UV light happens before age 18.1

Spending time outside is an essential part of your child’s development. Apart from learning to appreciate nature, getting fresh air, and balancing screen-time with outdoor relaxation, being outside means your child will get much-needed physical exercise. Furthermore, it can help strengthen the immune system, promote healthy sleeping, and contribute to a more positive mood. Research also suggests that children who spend more time outdoors have a lower chance of developing short-sightedness (myopia).2 What’s more, your child’s body needs sun exposure to produce vitamin D, which plays an important role in the bone development process.

Despite this, in a country like Australia, these benefits must be weighed against the risks. And while the solution is by no means to lock your kids indoors, education about eye health and the impact of UV on children’s health – particularly their vision - is crucial.

The scorching ‘Australian sun’

Australia’s reputation as the sunburn capital of the world is no myth. We experience higher levels of UV radiation thanks to our geography. We’re close to Antarctica and the hole in the ozone layer located there. During summer, the Earth’s orbit brings Australia closer to the sun, resulting in further sun intensity. Coupled with our clearer atmospheric conditions, our UV exposure in summer is around 15 percent higher than in Europe.

UV risks higher for children

When it comes to children, many people don’t realise how much more susceptible they are to UVR damage. Firstly, children tend to spend more time outdoors, making their average UV exposure three times higher than that of an adult; 40-50 percent of lifetime UV exposure up to the age of 60 will happen before your child turns 20.3 Children’s skin also contains less melanin, which is the body’s natural protective pigment.

As for our eyes, the crystalline lens protecting the eye is more transparent in children. For children under the age of 10, over 75 percent of UVR is transmitted by the crystalline lens, compared to 10 percent of UVR in those older than 25 years.4

But haven't humans survived thousands of years without sunglasses?

The problem we face today is that our eyes have not adapted to our lifestyles and climate conditions – particularly Australian conditions. For the people who historically lived in areas where eye protection was needed from the sun, the eyes have adapted, with protection in the form of epicanthic folds partially covering the top part of the eyes - normal for people of largely Asiatic descent. But now we live in a global society, inhabiting parts of the world our bodies aren’t designed to endure. We’re also living longer, so vision problems that might have hit in what was once considered old age are now considered our ‘prime’.

The lesson is that our eyes face serious risks from UV exposure, so we should intervene - and early - so our children are protected and develop good habits for life.

How to protect your child’s eyes from UV

Research shows that children’s sun protection habits and behaviour highly depend on the example and advice they get from their parents, even once they get older and start making their own decisions. 5 So, persist, even if your kid thinks sunglasses don’t look cool or you struggle to keep your toddler still to apply some sunscreen. Eventually, your guidance will make a difference to your child’s overall health.
Invest in a good sun protection hat to cover the face and eyes. Wide-brimmed hats or those with a neck flap are more effective than peaks, visors or caps. As well as a pair of sunnies, if your child requires glasses for vision correction, make sure all clear lenses have correct UV protection.
 
When choosing any form of eyewear for your child, choose carefully. ZEISS’s study showed that Australian parents tend to find this confusing - with 62 percent finding it difficult to understand UV protection levels on children’s sunglasses.
Most lenses only protect against UV light up to a wavelength of 380 nm, which means that the remaining UVR will still enter your child’s eyes. It may sound like a small difference, but the irradiance between 380 and 400 nm is much more intense. All ZEISS lenses achieve the 400 nm standard, and this is what all parents should ask for when purchasing eyewear for their children.

Aussie summers are getting hotter and longer. Ensuring your children’s skin and eyes are properly protected means your child can be out in the sunshine today and enjoying good health long into adulthood.

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