Local eye experts say that sunglasses are a necessity for long-term eye health. Some studies have shown that not wearing them can potentially increase the risk of cataracts and long-term eye damage. Brad Nettles/Staff

At Shades of Charleston, customers are bombarded with options. 

There are luxury sunglasses with pristine, delicate designs. There are other brands that look like not even a speck of light could pass through them. 

Steve Cortina Jr., who manages the store, said the most important component may be a little sticker that details 100 percent UV — or ultraviolet ray — protection. 

“I tell people, for me, personally, I don’t care what they look like," Cortina said. “It’s more function than fashion for me.”

Experts say that most people, as they age, will develop cataracts. The condition is marked by the clouding of the eye lens that occurs when tissue in the eye changes over time.

Studies have shown that smoking and poor diet can speed up cataracts. People who engage in those habits may have cataracts appear at earlier ages. But there's also a chance that not wearing sunglasses that offer proper protection can potentially accelerate the process of developing cataracts, too, especially in the Lowcountry. 

“The big thing is sunlight exposure," said Dr. Hugh Wright, a physician with the Eye Center of Charleston.


Shades of Charleston employee Summer McNairy (center) helps customer Carson Boozer pick out a pair of Costa sunglasses on Wednesday, August 14, 2019. Doctors recommend that patients wear sunglasses that can reduce their UV exposure. Doing so may reduce the risk of developing cancer or cataracts. Brad Nettles/Staff

The National Institutes of Health estimate that 20 percent of all cases of cataracts are caused by extended exposure to ultraviolet rays, a kind of energy that is created by the sun. 

And in Charleston, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ranked the UV index as borderline extreme. The agency has reminded residents to take action to reduce sun exposure and it cautions beachgoers, specifically, that bright surfaces and white sand can reflect UV rays and double the exposure. 

Dr. Lynn Perry, a professor with the Storm Eye Institute at the Medical University of South Carolina, explained it is challenging for experts to come to a consensus on just how significant of a role sunglasses play in reducing UV exposure because it is difficult to conduct large-scale studies involving the long-term effects of not wearing sunglasses.  

But, she said, enough smaller scale studies have been conducted to justify the advice that patients should use sunglasses. 

"There's enough of an association," she said. "There's enough suggestion of it out there." 

In a project that followed participants of the U.S. Radiologic Technologists Study from 2005 to 2013, ambient UVR (ultraviolet radiation) was associated with an increased risk of cataracts and cataract surgery. 

Dr. Cody Smouse, an optometrist and owner of Charleston Eye, said "UV exposure is cumulative. We do see cumulative effects on the eyes." 

While the risk of cataracts still needs more study, it's not the only reason why physicians recommend the use of sunglasses. Smouse compares it to the actions people take to protect their skin when they step outside. 

People routinely use sunblock and extra material to cover themselves in the sun, he said, "but we don’t always think about the eyes themselves."

Something that is directly tied to UV or sunlight exposure is a pterygium, or "surfer's eye." This occurs when a piece of tissue grows on the eye and often covers part of the cornea.

The condition can affect a person's vision and requires corrective surgery, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. 

"Anything to help prevent that would be great," Perry said. 

Wright, who used to practice in New York, said the condition is more common in places like Charleston and Miami. 

At his office, Smouse said he sees many cases of a condition called pinguecula, the early stages of "surfer's eye." This is marked by a yellow spot or bump that appears on the side of the eye. 

“Sixty percent of adults I see have pinguecula on the eye," he said. "We see those cases very, very often."

All of the doctors agreed that sunglasses should help prevent pinguecula. They also explained there is research being done to determine if UV exposure impacts macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in America. 

But one of the more significant reasons they advise patients to wear sunglasses is to mitigate the risk of cancer. Reiterating the comparison to skin, Smouse explained that people should look at protecting their eyes from cancer the same way they protect themselves from skin cancer. 

"Sunglasses can actually help protect the skin around the eyes from cancer down the road," Smouse said.

To help with all of this, doctors recommend that people get sunglasses that specify 100 percent UV protection. And polarized glasses, or glasses that reduce glare, are helpful for beachgoers, for both adults and children, whose eyes are still developing. 

"Kids spend a lot of time on the beach," Perry said. 

There is no health standard that requires sunglasses to meet certain qualifications. This year, the American Academy of Optometry found that among similar price points and advertised claims, the amount of UV protection in sunglasses varied


Shades of Charleston customer Carson Boozer looks in a mirror at a pair of Costa sunglasses on Wednesday, August 14, 2019. Local eye experts say wearing sunglasses that offer UV protection can mitigate the risk of several eye-related problems. And studies have shown that more expensive brands don't necessarily offer more protection from the sun. Brad Nettles/Staff

At Shades of Charleston, Cordina, who fishes often, said that Maui Jim, Costa Del Mar and Ray-Ban are popular brands that he recommends for protection. All three are polarized and offer UV protection, he said.

Maui Jim is the only one of the three that the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends. Other brands, including Coppertone Lenses and Coolibar, are also recognized by the foundation.

The more expensive sunglasses don't necessarily provide better protection. 

"You don’t have to break the bank to find a good pair of sunglasses," Smouse said.

Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.