We all know the importance of sunscreen. Protecting your skin from sunburns is vital to staying comfortable in the summer months and can help lower your odds of skin cancer later in life. But sunscreen can’t protect your whole body. Did you know your eyes can become sunburned, as well? It’s not only possible, but pretty common, too, and sunscreen definitely isn’t much help in preventing it.


The official term for sunburned eyes is photokeratitis. You may have been warned about photokeratitis on ski slopes as snowy environments are where people tend to be the most caught off guard. After all, we’re generally not thinking about sun damage during the winter months.

Photokeratitis is a worst-case scenario, similar to those red, peeling skin burns we’ve been taught to avoid at all costs. With severely sunburned eyes there may be permanent damage to the cornea. The cornea becomes inflamed and frequent photokeratitis may contribute to macular degeneration, cataracts, and even skin cancer of the eyelid.

Milder cases of sunburned eyes are less severe in their consequences, but still carry many of the same risks. Much like typical sunburns, the risks go up with multiple exposures. It is a good investment to consider UV-resistant lenses for your prescription glasses so you limit your eyes’ exposure to ultraviolet rays.

Symptoms of sunburned eyes

It can be hard to tell if you’ve burned your eyes, especially if you suffer from allergies or dry eye as some of the symptoms overlap.

  • A gritty feeling in the eyes
  • Pain/swelling
  • Excessive tearing
  • Headache
  • Twitching eyelids (this is also a common symptom of lack of sleep)
  • Blurred vision
  • Light sensitivity

Your eyes should be feeling normal again in just a couple of days. Any symptoms that persist longer should be checked out by a doctor as they could signal severe sunburn damage or may even be related to a separate problem.

How the sun burns your eyes

From a young age, we’re taught not to stare into the sun, because doing so can be very harmful to your eyes. But most of the time, sunburned eyes aren’t the result of people ignoring this simple rule. UV rays from the sun bounce off of reflective surfaces and find their way to your eyes. Common UV reflectors include:

  • Snow
  • Concrete
  • Water
  • Sand

When is it serious?

All sunburns carry serious consequences, but there’s not usually any advantage in going to a doctor. Most burns will heal in their own time with or without medical intervention. However, you should always consult a doctor if your symptoms are severe or if they persist longer than a couple of days. Examples of symptoms requiring immediate medical attention include:

  • Vision alterations (blurs, halos, shadowy areas, etc.)
  • Loss of night vision
  • Extreme light sensitivity

How to protect your eyes

There is no sunscreen for your eyes, but fortunately, you don’t really need it. While a careful application of sunscreen to the eyelids and surrounding area is good for the skin around your eyes, a solid pair of shades can protect your actual eyeballs from the UV rays that cause sunburn. Hats with wide brims and anything else that gives you shade will also provide solid protection from the sun.

Your eyelids sport some of the thinnest and most vulnerable skin on your whole body, and sunglasses have the added benefit of protecting this sensitive area, as well. Be sure your sunglasses truly are 100 percent UV-resistant or they won’t do you much good. If you need prescription glasses, then our sunglasses have got you covered with complete UV protection and the best prescription lenses. In this case, sun protection is stylish!

Treatment for sunburned eyes

The best treatment is prevention, but no one is perfect. If you suspect your eyes may be sunburned, there are a few things you can do. If you wear contact lenses, take them out and don’t put them back in until your eyes have healed; use prescription eyeglasses, instead. Avoid rubbing your eyes as this will only make them feel worse and could cause additional problems. Closing your eyes and applying a cool compress may help ease any pain or swelling.

Over-the-counter painkillers can help relieve the painful effects of sunburn, as well. Stock up on some artificial tears and try to keep chlorinated water and saltwater out of your eyes while you heal (so remember to bring those goggles if you go swimming).

Unless the damage is severe, your eyes will heal on their own. Most sunburn damage affects the front of the eye. It is more concerning if the damage makes its way to the back of your eye (your retina).

Many people who burn their eyes don’t even notice that it happened, tricking them into thinking that sunburns on the eyes aren’t real or aren’t a serious issue. But the truth is that everyone is at risk, and we can all stay safer with some decent sunglasses and a nice hat!