Gill South discovers how best to protect her eyes from the summer rays

I had a very diverting interview recently with Steve Tollestrup, the outgoing executive director of the Tear Fund aid organisation. At the end of our meeting, he asked me if I wanted to see something amazing. "Of course," I said, wondering what I was getting myself into. We raced outside the cafe, where his car was parked. He got out some odd-looking glasses and pointed up at the sky. It's the eclipse, he said in excitement. The member of the Auckland Astronomical Society had not only me but the whole cafe out looking through his special glasses at the natural phenomenon, bless him.

Of course most people know that you should never look directly at the sun.

According to Melissa Hay, director and optometrist at Visique, if we look directly at the sun during an eclipse without protection, the solar light is so focused it can scar or damage the retina. She doesn't recommend doing it in non-eclipse situations either. Ultra-violet exposure can injure the protective layer on the front of the eye and cause conditions such as macular degeneration, cataracts and pterygium.

As with your skin, the most harm to your eyes - 80 per cent - happens in the first 18 years of your life. I am blue eyed and fair skinned and don't think I started wearing sunglasses until university, so I'm stuffed.


My boys have sunglasses for cricket and they rarely wear them - at least they wear them across the brim of their caps, thinking it makes them look cool. Start giving them incentives to wear them, Melissa suggests. I'm thinking maybe $2 a match and I'll take it out of their bank account. Just kidding ...

It's about getting the kids into the habit of wearing them, says the optometrist. It's like wearing high heels, you become used to wearing high heels, she says. I don't like to say, but I have never worn high heels in my life and hope never to. I see women tottering around in really high ones and I wince at their every step. That's no habit to be getting into.

Anyway, Visique, citing some research from the Kanazawa Medical University in Japan, is alerting people to the fact that for most of the year harmful UV exposure to eyes peaks in the early morning and late afternoon, not in the middle of the day.

And don't be fooled by a cloudy day, says Melissa. With the cloud reflecting the sun, there can be more UV damage done than on a sunny day. I've always felt a bit self-conscious about how quickly I don my sunnies, like some wannabe celeb, but now I feel rather smug. This column can be so self-affirming when it's not picking my lifestyle apart piece by piece.

When doing water sports - like kayaking - is another key time to protect your eyes, with the reflection off the water taking its effect, says Melissa.

Melissa is relaxed about the kind of sunglasses we all wear - plastic as a material is UV-inhibiting, she says, so a pair of $50 ones from the pharmacy are just as good as a pair of $500 Guccis.

She recommends we all go for wraparound ones or glasses with thick arms so the sides of our eyes are protected too, as 60 per cent of sunlight comes in horizontally.

Last year I wore contact lenses for swimming at the beach and, of course, didn't have any sunglasses to wear that weren't prescription, so I borrowed a pair from the kids. This year I'll follow Melissa's advice and pick up some cheap wraparounds.