Safety Gear Should Include Sunglasses, Experts Say


Wind, water and sun add up to a weekend of fun if you’re a boater. But they may also multiply your chances of developing eye problems ranging from mild irritation to skin cancer of the eyelids and possibly cataracts.

Even so, when most boaters think about safety gear, they think of life vests, flare guns and fire extinguishers. Not sunglasses. Yet, boaters--even on cloudy days--are bombarded by sunlight reflected off the water or the sails, even the fiberglass deck. Eye doctors warn that sunlight, particularly ultraviolet (UV) rays, can be harmful to the eyes.

That’s why longtime boater Brad Avery, sailing director at Orange Coast College, says: “I never leave the house without my sunglasses. I usually take two pairs, just in case I lose one.”


Boaters like Avery who believe that eye protection is a must on the water are playing it safe--and smart, according to Dr. Arthur Charap, assistant professor of ophthalmology at UC Irvine.

“On the water you have an abundance of ultraviolet light,” he says. “More so than you would get from nearly any other activity where you are more protected from the sun. There is reflective light as well as direct light. And between the wind and spray and everything else there is a lot more irritation.”

Excess ultraviolet light can do more than just damage the eyes, according to Charap, who points out that one of the most common sites for the formation of skin cancers is on the eyelids and at the border of the eyes. “The skin around the eye is particularly sun-sensitive,” he says. “It is very thin. And on the water, it’s getting lots of reflective sunlight.”

Exposure to sunlight can also cause the formation of an eye growth called a pterygium, a fleshy, yellowish membrane that can distort or obscure vision. “It is no secret that the incidence of ptergyiums is definitely more prevalent among people who spend a lot of time on the water in the bright sun,” says Charap, who routinely performs operations to remove the growths on patients at his private practice in Anaheim Hills.

More controversial is the relationship between ultraviolet light and cataracts. Recent research at Emory and at Johns Hopkins universities shows that people who do not wear UV protection are more likely to develop cataracts than those who do. Even though not all eye doctors are convinced of those findings, many still recommend some kind of UV protection for people who spend time in the sun.

As Charap points out: “No one understands the formation of cataracts. The evidence is mixed, but there is no evidence that UV light does any good for your eyes and there are enough good reasons that it could be hazardous. So, since it couldn’t hurt (to wear sunglasses) it is common sense that you should wear something to protect yourself.”


Sunglasses can also help protect you from eye injury, says Charap, who lectures on sports-related eye injuries. “People assume that sports on the ground are something you worry about, but they let their guard down on the water, assuming it is more benign.

“But people get all kinds of stuff in their eyes, flying foreign bodies, ski tow ropes whipping up out of the water. I see bungee cord injuries about once a week. On boats everything is tied down or strapped down and the ties come unhooked and nail you.”

To avoid such injuries and to protect yourself from too much sunlight, a good pair of sunglasses should become a regular part of your boating equipment, eye specialists say. But what should you look for when shopping for eye wear?

You can start by reading labels. Sunglass manufacturers use a voluntary labeling system for three classes of glasses: cosmetic, general purpose and special purpose. Cosmetic glasses block little harmful radiation, while special-purpose glasses block most harmful radiation. Special-purpose glasses are recommended by most eye specialists for boating. (If the glasses are unlabeled, experts say don’t buy them.)

Many eye doctors, including Paul Blaze, president of the Orange County Optometric Society, also recommend polarized lenses for boaters. “They knock out the glare,” he says. “For boating, a good high-quality laminated polarized lens is best.”

Some eyeglass manufacturers have even developed glasses specially designed for boaters. Spex sunglasses--a cross between glasses and goggles--feature frames that float and shatter-proof, polarized lenses that do not fog or collect water. The sunglasses sell for about $65, according to Steve Teregis, president of the Costa Mesa-based company.

“Ours wrap completely around and offer complete UV protection and good peripheral vision,” Teregis says. “And they are polarized to eliminate the glare.”

He says the wrap-around style also protects the eyes from the wind--a real problem for people who operate high-speed boats. The sunglass company is currently developing a product exclusively for power boaters with high-speed boats, according to Teregis.

A new waterproof lens, aimed at boaters and fishermen, is being introduced in September by Specialized Eyeware in Laguna Niguel. The company, which sells sports eyewear, says the lens has a protective coating that prevents water from collecting.

“When water gets on the lens, it beads right up and runs off,” says Chuck Larson, president of the company.

The eyewear firm, which has been in business since 1983, sells its products through catalogues such as L. L. Bean and provides all types of sports glasses for everyone from motorcycle enthusiasts to sharpshooters.

“Our biggest response has always been from fishermen who were buying our polarized lenses to block the glare on the water,” Larson says. “When you spend a lot of time on the water, it’s more fun if your eyes are relaxed. Reducing glare helps reduce strain on the eye.”