Is Eye Sunburn a Real Thing?

You slather on the sunscreen and you’re ready for fun in the sun, right? Not so fast. Your skin isn’t the only part of your anatomy that needs protection from the sun. Your eyes also need protection. In a big way.

Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays can leave you temporarily blind or lead to permanent damage.

You probably learned as a child that looking directly at a solar eclipse without protection could be dangerous. Not only is eye sunburn a real thing, but in addition to getting it from direct exposure to sun rays, you can get it from sunlight reflected off sand, water, ice, or snow. The same damage can occur when you use a tanning bed or lamp.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper suffered a 36-hour bout of blindness due to eye sunburn back in 2012. It was reported that he spent an extended period of time on the water without sunglasses.

Sun damage can affect the cornea (photokeratitis) and the conjunctiva (photoconjunctivitis), the membranes that line the inside of your eyelids and eye socket.

Signs you may have eye sunburn

You probably won’t notice that the sun is damaging your eyes while you’re enjoying outdoor activities or laying around on the beach. But within a few hours of exposure, you may start to notice:

  • redness
  • tearing
  • light sensitivity
  • twitching eyelid
  • a gritty, itchy feeling
  • blurry vision, seeing halos
  • swelling
  • pain
  • headache

Longer exposure to the sun causes more severe symptoms, such short-term loss of vision.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), snow can reflect up to 80 percent of incident UV radiation, which can kill the outer cells of the eyeball and lead to blindness. Snow blindness is a painful condition, but vision usually returns to normal within a few days. In severe cases, you may end up with chronic tearing or irritation.

If you make a habit out of it, you’re increasing the risk that you’ll develop:

  • Cataracts, which clouds your eye lens and blurs vision. In fact, as many as 20 percent of cases can be attributed to extended UV exposure, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI).
  • Macular degeneration, which destroys central vision and, according to the NEI, is the leading cause of blindness in the United States.
  • Pterygium, a growth of tissue that can cover part of the cornea, become inflamed, and affect vision.
  • Cancer of the eye.

What to do if you have eye sunburn

Mild sunburn of the eye usually clears up on its own, but there are a few things you can do to feel better:

  • Spend a few hours in a darkened room.
  • Resist the temptation to rub your eyes.
  • Put a cool washcloth or compress over your eyes several times a day.
  • Use artificial tears.
  • Don’t wear contact lenses until your eyes have recovered.
  • Stay out of the sun as much as possible. If you must be outside, wear sunglasses and avoid looking at the sun.

If you’re in great pain or if your vision is seriously impaired, see your doctor or ophthalmologist.

How to prevent eye sunburn

Fortunately, sunburned eyes can be prevented. The most important thing you can do is invest in a good pair of sunglasses.

Fred Edmunds, O.D., Chair of the American Optometric Association (AOA) Sports Vision Section, told Care2, “According to the AOA’s 2015 American Eye-Q survey, 47 percent of consumers do not check the UV protection level before purchasing sunglasses.” Dr. Edmunds provided these tips from the AOA:

  • Be sure your sunglasses block out 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B rays. While some contact lenses also offer UV protection, these should be worn with sunglasses to maximize protection.
  • Your sunglasses should screen out 75 to 90 percent of visible light.
  • The frame of your sunglasses should fit close to your eyes and contour to the shape of your face to prevent exposure to UV rays from all sides, even from behind.
  • Choose lenses that are perfectly matched in color and are free of distortion and imperfection. Lenses should also have a uniform tint, not darker in one area from another. The AOA recommends a gray tint, which offers the best color recognition.

Edmunds advises using quality sunglasses all year, no matter the season, and even on cloudy days. He also recommends wearing a cap or wide-brimmed hat to shade the sun.

It’s easy to overlook toddlers and very young children, but their eyes need UV protection, too. April Jasper, O.D., F.A.A.O., recommends starting with babies.

“Once they become used to the routine they will never depart from it,” she said. “As a parent, knowing that my child is wearing a lens that is not only protecting her from sun damage, but also is shatter-resistant and will protect her from eye injuries (if I purchase polycarbonate lens material), is extremely comforting.”

These few precautions should help you avoid sunburned eyes while you’re enjoying the great outdoors.

For more about eye health, read these stories next:
Spider Web Vision: Should You Be Worried?
How To Help Your Eyes Recover From Staring At Screens
6 Fabulous Food Combos for Healthy Eyes
5 Ways to Keep Your Eyes Healthy

Image Credit: Thinkstock


Lydia L
Lydia L11 months ago

Thanks for sharing this article. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes. Sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays greatly reduce sun exposure, protecting the eyes and eyelids. They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors for both men and women. You can choose according to your choice and requirement. Get more info at :

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Cabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Nina S.
Nina S1 years ago


Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons1 years ago

stare at the sun long and youll go blind.

Teresa Antela
Teresa Antela1 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Good sunglasses it's a must!

Danuta Watola
Danuta W1 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Fred L.
Fred L1 years ago

As a geezer who surfs a lot, I've developed both a pterygium and a pinguecula in my right eye. I've used sunglasses especially made for surfing (SeaSpecs) for the past several years, but I guess the cumulative effects of all that sun have finally caught up to me. I now restrict my surfing to only the early morning and early evening hours. I don't surf when it's fairly dark, as that's disrespecting the sharks.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran1 years ago


Jane R.
Jane R1 years ago

This gives so much good information. I have pre-retinal membrane, small cataracts and dry eyes, so I should really get a good pair of sunglasses. Thanks for sharing.