Just as the sun can harm your skin, it can also affect your eyes and potentially impact your vision. So as you apply your suncream, you should also be thinking about ways to protect your eyes from UV damage on sunnier days.

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke (or sunstroke)

Now that temperatures are warming up, you need to be careful spending time in the sun, as it can make you feel ill. During warmer months, many people tend to get heat exhaustion from dehydration and spending prolonged periods outside. For some people, this can even develop into heatstroke (or sunstroke).

What’s the difference between heat exhaustion and heatstroke (or sunstroke)?

Heatstroke is a more severe form of heat exhaustion. With heat exhaustion, you may get a headache or feel dizzy, but you should be able to cool yourself down and feel better within 30 minutes by drinking plenty of water and avoiding the sun. However, if you continue to feel ill, then you may have heatstroke, which is to be treated as an emergency, and you should call 999 immediately.

How does heat exhaustion impact your eyes?

Heat exhaustion can affect your vision in a few ways. When you are hot and dizzy, your sight can become blurred, or you may experience double vision and find it hard to focus. Being dehydrated also impacts your eyesight: heat exhaustion will not directly cause red eyes, but dehydration can increase the likelihood of soreness and eye irritation. 

Can heat stroke affect your eyes?

Yes! As well as potential blurred vision, some people experience issues with pupil dilation and constriction when suffering from heatstroke. A form of involuntary eye movement has also been occasionally noticed in people with heatstroke, but only in very low numbers.1

For Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferers, there can be a specific reaction to increased heat exposure known as Uhtoff’s phenomenon. This is explained as the ‘deterioration of visual acuity’ caused by an increase in body temperature.2 The symptoms however are only temporary (lasting less than 24 hours), and your sight should improve as your body begins to cool down.

What to do if you’re experiencing heat exhaustion or heatstroke

The most important thing to do is to cool yourself down. If you are suffering from heat exhaustion, move to a cool, shaded place and drink plenty of water. You can also try to cool your skin by spraying water or getting a friend to fan you. 

If you have tried these cooling methods and you still feel unwell, you may have heatstroke, so call 111 for medical assistance.

Sunburned eyes (photokeratitis)

Sunburned eyes (also known as photokeratitis or snow blindness) happen when you are overexposed to harmful UV rays (usually from the sun) without the correct eye protection. This can occur when sunlight reflects off concrete, sand, water and snow.3 The overexposure to your eye damages the cornea’s outer layer, temporarily causing it to become inflamed and sore. 

Although photokeratitis is often known as snow blindness — commonly affecting skiers blinded by the sun’s reflection off the snow — anyone can experience sunburned eyes if they are exposed to high amounts of sunlight without wearing the right protection. 

The NHS recommends the following groups of people need to take more care in the sun:

  • Have pale, white or light brown skin
  • Have freckles or red/fair hair
  • More likely to burn rather than tan
  • Have lots of moles
  • Have skin problems relating to a medical condition
  • Occasional exposure to intense sun or live in a hot country where the sun is intense
  • Have a family history of skin cancer.3

Can your eyes be sunburned?

Yes! Both the skin around your eyes, as well as your eyes themselves, can be susceptible to sun damage. Without the correct protection, the sun’s UV rays can burn your eyes, potentially damaging your vision. Sunburn also increases your risk of skin cancer.3  In particular, basal cell carcinoma, which commonly develops on areas most exposed to the sun, such as your face, including eyelids and the skin around the eye.4

Symptoms of sunburned eyes: what do they feel like?

When your eyes are sunburned it can feel quite painful. Your eyes will go red/ bloodshot and may even water. They will also feel very itchy but you mustn’t rub or scratch them as this could make them worse. 

Some other symptoms of sunburned eyes to look out for are: blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and the feeling of grit or sand in your eyes.

How do you treat sunburned eyes?

  1. Swap contacts for sunnies — if you wear contact lenses, take them out to avoid irritation, and make sure you wear your sunglasses to protect your eyes while they heal. You can check out our range of prescription sunglasses here.
  2. Get inside — to prevent any further damage to your eyes, you should avoid direct exposure to sunlight, and go indoors until your symptoms subside. 
  3. Cool down — to help with your symptoms, place a cold compress or a fresh, damp cloth over closed eyes to cool them down. 
  4. Avoid itching — we know it can be hard, but try not to rub or itch your eyes as this will make them worse.
  5. See your optician — if these treatments aren’t helping and your eyes continue to feel sore for over 48 hours, you should visit your opticians so they can check your eye health.

How long do sunburned eyes take to heal?

This depends on the extent of the damage and sunburn, but generally, symptoms tend to improve between 24 and 48 hours following sun exposure. Most people also benefit from some form of eye drops or ointment to help the healing process.

What to do if you get suncream in your eyes

If you accidentally get suncream in your eyes, they might become sore, red and watery because the ingredients disrupt the tear film and irritate the eye. The best treatment for suncream in the eyes is to flush them out with saline or clean running water for a few minutes, which should help to rinse away the sunscreen. If you’re still experiencing some redness or discomfort, try applying a cool, wet compress to the eyes which should provide some relief.

If the irritation doesn’t ease after an hour or so then please contact your optometrist who can examine your eye for damage and advise accordingly. Sometimes using eyedrops or an ointment to help lubricate the eye can aid recovery.

It’s still important to protect yourself from sunburn though — especially the sensitive skin around your eyes — so don’t let one bad experience stop you from using suncream on your face in future. Most sunscreen is safe to use around the eyes (without putting it in your eyes, of course), but you should always check the label on your suncream bottle to be sure.

Although it’s important to apply (and reapply) suncream around the eyes daily, it shouldn’t be your only line of defence against the sun either. A broad-brimmed hat and a pair of sunglasses can offer an added barrier of protection for your eyes.

How to protect your eyes against the sun

Now you know what harm the sun can do, you may be wondering what you can do to protect your eyes from this damage.

Get some sunglasses

Make sure that you own a good pair of sunglasses with UV protection. Look for glasses carrying the CE mark, or the British Standard (BS EN ISO 12312-1:2013), as this ensures they match up to the appropriate safety standards. 

You can also visit our page on UV protection to decide which type of sunglasses treatment is best for you.

Clothing choices

You should try and wear clothing that offers sun protection, on top of wearing sunglasses. 

Clothes such as a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck and ears; a long-sleeved t-shirt; and trousers and maxi-skirts that don’t allow sunlight through can help to keep you protected from the strong UV rays.3

Avoid the sun (and sunbeds)

We all know how much the warm weather can be nice, and we’re not telling you to avoid the sun altogether, but you need to be careful when spending time outdoors. You should never look directly at the sun as this can damage your eyes, and limiting your time in the heat will also make you less likely to get heat exhaustion or heatstroke, keeping your eyes healthy.

Equally, the UV rays emitted by sunbeds can also be damaging to your eyes, so be careful and ensure you wear the correct eye protection.

Test your eyes regularly

We recommend that you get your eyes tested every 2 years. However, it is best to come in sooner if you have particular concerns about your eye health or if you are advised by your optometrist.

If you’re having any problems with your eyes due to the heat, visit your local optician to get expert advice and make sure your eyes are healthy. For more advice on sun protection visit our Buyer’s Guides.

References

1. Gregory Van Stavern, Valerie Biousse, and Nancy Newman, ‘Downbeat nystagmus from heat stroke’, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 69:3 (2000), pp.403-404. [online] [Available at: http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/69/3/403]. [accessed 08/06/2021]

2. Sreelakshmi Panginikkod et al., ‘Uhthoff’s Phenomenon’,  National Center for Biotechnology Infomation (2021) [online] [Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470244/]. [accessed 08/06/2021]

3. NHS, ‘Sunscreen and sun safety’, NHS (2019) [online] [Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/sunscreen-and-sun-safety/

4. British Skin Foundation, ‘Basal cell carcinoma’, British Skin Foundation [online] [Available at: https://knowyourskin.britishskinfoundation.org.uk/condition/basal-cell-carcinoma/