Health eye-sunburn-photokeratitis
Can Your Eyes Get Sunburned From Staring at the Sun? Experts Weigh In

Even if you’re slathering on your SPF, there might still be one area of your face you’re failing to protect: your eyes. Just ask actor Busy Philipps, who said she was recently diagnosed with photokeratitis (aka eye sunburn) due to exposure to bright light and the sun. “I spent last night at Cedars [Hospital] after I couldn’t sleep because it felt like there were shards of glass in both my eyes,” she wrote in an Instagram post.

Concerned, we reached out to the experts to learn more about the condition ! and how to both prevent and treat it. Ahead, here’s everything you need to know in order to protect yourself from eye sunburns.

What is photokeratitis?

“Photokeratitis is basically like having a sunburn on the front part of your eye, which is called the cornea,” Jessica Lee, a board-certified ophthalmologist, and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, tells Allure. “Just like having a sunburn on the skin can be painful and uncomfortable, photokeratitis can be a painful eye condition.”

How do you get it?

Just like with sunburns on your skin, UV rays can cause inflammation to your eyes, specifically to the corneas. “This is most commonly caused by extended exposure to sunlight or tanning booths,” Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tells Allure.

You don’t have to be staring directly at the sun to risk burning your eyes (though that will certainly do it). The condition can also be caused by reflections from the sun, like when it hits water or snow, Lee explains. “Snow blindness is a common form of photokeratitis when UV rays are reflected off of ice and snow,” she says.

It’s not just the sun you have to be mindful of when preventing “eyeburn.” “Both halogen and fluorescent indoor bulbs do emit some ultraviolet light,” Zeichner says. Theoretically, overexposure to indoor lightbulbs could also cause inflammation of the cornea, just like in Philipps’s case.

How is photokeratitis treated?

Fortunately, the damage done by sun burning your eyes typically isn’t permanent. Much like burns on your skin, it should heal itself in a few days, says Lee. “The risk of permanent damage is low if exposure to UV rays was limited to the front part of the eye, the cornea,” she explains. “However, if exposure to UV rays affected the back of the eye, the retina,” ! which can happen if you look directly at an eclipse, for example ! “there is a greater and more serious risk of permanent visual deficits.”

While your eyes heal from photokeratitis, the discomfort can be treated using over-the-counter eye drops, antibiotic drops, or ointment recommended by an ophthalmologist.

How to protect your eyes

Just like you protect your skin from the sun, it’s important to protect your eyes to prevent any burns. The number one thing to remember is to make sure you always have adequate eye protection, says Lee. If you’re squeezing in one last ski trip, make sure you have UV-blocking goggles, and the same goes for the new sunglasses you’re currently shopping for beach season.

Secondly, you can also swap your indoor bulbs for UV-free options. “Incandescent and LED bulbs are much safer options [than fluorescent or halogen bulbs],” says Zeichner. “Especially if you have a condition that makes you sensitive to the sun, such as lupus, you should change your lightbulbs.”

Finally, we can’t stress enough the importance of SPF. While you’re obviously not putting sunscreen on your eyeballs, you should always be protecting your lids. Last year, we reported on a study which found people tend to miss about 10 percent of their face ! including the eye area ! while applying sunscreen. The thin, sensitive skin around the eyes is where 10 percent of skin cancers occur, so it’s hugely important to make sure you’re protecting your entire eye area from damaging rays.

“UV damage to the cornea is cumulative, so prolonged exposure to UV radiation without protection can lead to corneal damage,” says Lee. In other words, if they’re not already, make sure your eyes are always included in your sun protection routine.

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