Ask an Optometrist: Are UV-Blocking Contacts or Clear Lenses Enough?

Many clear lenses and contact lenses offer protection from the sun’s rays. But don’t toss your sunglasses. Keep your eyes safe with these tips.

Woman with glasses covering eyes from sunlight

If your everyday eyewear already protects your eyes from the sun’s damaging rays, then you don’t have to wear sunglasses, right?

Not so fast, says Brian Kit, O.D. He’s an optometrist whose practice is located within America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Baldwin Park, California.

Dr. Kit shares the lowdown on when it’s safe to skip sunglasses — and why UV protection is so important.

Have questions about your eye health or vision? Your America’s Best optometrist is here to help! Find an exam time that fits your schedule.

How can UV rays hurt my eyes?

The sun is a formidable foe. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can cause both short- and long-term damage to your vision and to the health of your eyes, Dr. Kit says.

If you’re exposed to a lot of UV rays over a short time — say, from a day at the beach or even a ski resort, where the sun reflects off the snow — you could develop photokeratitis. This is essentially a sunburn on your eyes, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Long-term exposure to the sun can also increase your risk of cataracts or age-related macular degeneration. These two eye conditions can cause vision loss.

So if the sun is the problem, why do contacts and regular eyeglass lenses bother with UV protection?

These extra layers of protection are good because there are a few indoor exposures to the sun’s rays that are commonly overlooked, Dr. Kit says.

  • The sunlight that passes through window glass, for example, can affect the eyes.
  • Certain machines (such as lasers or welding equipment) can throw off artificial sources of UV light, which can also harm your eyes, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA).
  • Fluorescent bulbs and other types of ambient indoor lighting also emit low doses of UV light.

America's Best Owl Mascot - An image of an owl covering its eye as if taking an eye exam
Get new glasses — and a FREE eye exam!

Our eye care specialists are here to help you see your best. Buy two pairs of glasses and the exam is on us!

I don’t spend a lot of time outside, so can I skip wearing sunglasses and just wear clear glasses instead?

Not really, because sunglasses and UV-blocking clear lenses and contacts have different purposes, says Dr. Kit.

A 100% UV-blocking coating is added to most clear prescription lenses offered at America’s Best, Dr. Kit says. This layer of protection is good for those indoor uses mentioned above. It’s also a nice fallback for dashes from store to store when you’re running errands — or when you take the trash to the curb and end up spending a few minutes chatting with a neighbor.

But you’ll want to wear sunglasses any time you’ll be outside or driving — in any season — for more than 30 minutes.

It’s worth noting that the UV coatings on clear lenses can start to wear off after about two years, Dr. Kit says. “That’s all the more reason to make sure you have a reliable pair of sunglasses handy.”

As for contact lenses, Dr. Kit points out that most UV-blocking contact lenses offer only about 75% to 99% of UV protection. Even if your contacts provide 99% UV protection, you should double up with sunglasses.

“Contacts only sit on the cornea of the eye,” Dr. Kit explains. “The UV blocker won’t protect the other parts of the eye, or the eyelids, or eyebrows.”

Getting too much sun exposure on any part of your eyes and surrounding skin can also raise the risk of eye diseases and skin cancer.

Press play to learn more about the importance of sunglasses:

How do I choose the right pair of sunglasses?

With sunglasses, it’s not necessarily the dark tint that’s blocking the sun — the tint is a visual comfort measure. In fact, some sunglasses don’t offer any UV protection, according to the AOA.

So don’t go by the darkness of the lens. Instead, choose a pair that specifically states 100% UVA and UVB protection (also sometimes listed as UVA 400).

“Wearing sunglasses is the equivalent of applying sunscreen to your skin to protect it from skin cancer and premature aging,” Dr. Kit says. “Every time you step outside, you should have that same mentality for your eyes.”