PINT-SIZED, inexpensive sunglasses perched on button noses are too cute for words, but are they ruining the eyes of the children who wear them? Perhaps. Eye specialists say that unless the lenses protect against ultraviolet (UV) radiation, a child is better off without sunglasses, even on the brightest days. The safest approach is to buy sunglasses that block at least 95% of UV rays.
"The worst thing you can do is put a child in sunglasses without UV protection because studies have shown that the long-term absorption of UV radiation probably contributes to cataracts and may also cause degeneration of the retina," says Dr. Sharon Spooner, a clinical instructor of pediatric ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute.
In bright sunlight, the pupil of the eye automatically constricts and muscles around the eye contract to a squint. This offers natural protection, by letting in fewer harmful rays. But when the eye is covered by a dark lens, muscles relax and the pupil dilates, allowing more UV rays to enter the eye.
Concern about UV radiation absorption has been a hot topic with regard to adult sunglasses for several years, but only recently have studies shown that children are particularly vulnerable. So doctors have begun to urge parents to protect children's eyes from UV. "I'm prescribing more sunglasses for kids with normal vision to make sure that they get adequate UV protection," says Dr. Jay Schlanger, an assistant professor at Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton and an optometrist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "Parents are now beginning to realize that the more UV you absorb in your lifetime, the more susceptible to damage you are. They want their kids to be protected as early as possible."