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3 tips to find the best sunglasses to protect your eye health

UV rays from the sun can damage the eyes, increasing your risk of eye diseases and cancer. Here's how to choose sunglasses that protect your eyes.

Summer is in full swing, which means many of us are spending more time outdoors enjoying the warm weather and sunshine. Whenever you're in the sun, it's important to protect yourself from the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Just like your skin, your eyes can also be damaged by the sun, which is why a good pair of sunglasses is the hottest summer accessory.

Exposure to UV rays with no eye protection comes with a number of risks. "Obviously, you'll squint in the sun which will make it less comfortable to see, but sun exposure is very strongly related to some eye diseases," Dr. Anne Negrin, MD, a board-certified ophthalmologist in New York, told TODAY.

Short-term effects include a sunburn on the eyes, Negrin said. This is also known as photokeratitis, a condition in which the cornea is damaged from exposure to UV rays leading to painful symptoms and even temporary vision problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Like a sunburn anywhere on your body, symptoms will usually resolve within a few days, but it's very uncomfortable.

Chronic UV exposure of the eyes can lead to long-term issues like macular degeneration, early cataracts and growths on the tissues of the eyes which may be noncancerous or cancerous. "The same cells that are in our skin that can lead to tumors and issues related to the sun are on and inside the eye as well," Negrin explained.

How to choose the right sunglasses

Sunglasses are the best way to protect your peepers, but not all shades are the same. There are several things to look out for when choosing the right sunglasses to ensure they are just as protective as they are comfortable and stylish.

According to Negrin, you should look for the following labels:

  • 100% UV protection
  • Block both UVA/UVB rays
  • 400NM or UV400

What does the last one mean? "It's the wavelength of that dangerous sunlight that you want to protect your eyes from," Negrin explained. So if sunglasses have the 400NM or UV400 label, it means they will block all UV light with wavelengths up to 400 nanometers.

The lenses don't have to be dark to block sun's harmful rays. In fact, the coloring and tint has nothing to do with UV protection, Negrin said. "A big trend right now [is] where the lenses are very light or translucent ... those can be 100% UVA/UVB protective compared to the dark, opaque ones."

Polarized lenses will reduce glare reflecting from surfaces like the water or roads. These are a good option for driving and for people who have had LASIK surgery, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Fit and style

Next, it's important to choose a pair of frames that are the right size for your head and face, Negrin said. The frames should fit snugly but comfortably. They shouldn't feel too tight on the sides of your heads, and should not slip and fall off when you bend down.

There are a variety of shapes to choose from, but generally, "bigger is better," said Negrin. Oversized sunglasses may not always be in style, but they do offer the most protection. "You're protecting that really delicate eyelids skin around your eyes. My favorite are wrap-around pairs ... I want to know I'm getting protection from the sides," Negrin said.

Finally, choose sunglasses that you will actually want to wear every day. "You want to feel good in them, so that you wear them," Negrin said. If that means splurging a little, it's worth it for your eye health.

“More expensive frames doesn’t mean you’re getting more protection, but it does mean you might like them better and you’re more likely to wear them,” Negrin said. Otherwise, you can find high-quality shades for a range of prices.

Best sunglasses for kids

All of Negrin's advice applies to children as well. "Kids need to wear sun protection ... we know that most of the damage done to our eyes is usually by our 20s," she explained. Negrin's favorite kid-friendly sunglasses have headbands or built-in straps that go around the back of the head and neck so they won't fall off or get lost as easily.

In addition to protecting your eyes with sunglasses, it's important to get routine checkups for your eye health. "The recommendation is starting at age 40, everyone should go yearly to an ophthalmologist to have a dilated exam... get your retina checked, see what diseases may be brewing," Negin said.

If you're younger than 40 and have no other medical problems, Negrin said the general rule of thumb is to see an ophthalmologist once every five years.