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Debunked: No, you won't develop skin cancer from wearing sunglasses

A social media claim is wrongly saying that sunglasses are harmful.

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A VIRAL IMAGE has collected thousands of views across social media this month by telling people that wearing sunglasses will cause them harm.

The claim suggests that by blocking light from our eyes, sunglasses “trick” the body into not protecting itself against the sun, leading to the development of skin cancer.

“This is one of the main reasons people get skin cancer. Not because of the sun, but because of sunglasses,” the post claims. 

The text is in an image that has been reposted on various social media pages and profiles, including an Irish Facebook page.

But it is completely untrue. The claim doesn’t reference any scientific evidence, but the idea appears to go back to a book published 14 years ago that made a similar argument.

“Survival of the Sickest”, published in 2007 in the US, suggested that wearing sunglasses could be linked to growing levels of skin cancer because they stopped the body from receiving signals that would cause it to protect itself in the sun.

An academic review of the book in the University of Chicago Press’ Quarterly Review of Biology, 2008, said that it contained some errors and “unsubstantiated hypotheses”.

The reviewer, Professor Gillian R Bentley of Durham University, does not reference the sunglasses claim, but writes that there are “some novel, unsubstantiated hypotheses that do not appear in other similar books” and that there are “also a few errors” in the book.

There is no advice from public health agencies against the wearing of sunglasses, nor are sunglasses listed as a cause or risk factor for skin cancer.

In fact, sunglasses are widely recommended around the world as a tool to protect our eyes against sun damage.

The Irish Cancer Society says that sunglasses are hugely important as a way to defend the delicate skin on and around your eyes, as well as the eye itself.

Speaking to The Journal, ICS Cancer Prevention Manager Kevin O’Hagan said that “wearing sunglasses is extremely important for protecting people from the harmful effects of UV exposure which can cause non-melanoma skin cancers on the eyelid and the area around the eyes”.

“UV exposure can also damage the cornea, conjunctiva, lens, and retina, so there really are no downsides to keeping yourself protected,” O’Hagan said.

To find a pair of sunglasses that give good protection, he advised checking for a CE mark that indicates they reach EU standards for health, safety and environmental protection.

The marker code for meeting the European Standard is EN1836 and BS 27241987 is the British Standard.

“The time of day to wear sunglasses is also important,” O’Hagan said.

“We often assume that eye protection can be ignored or neglected during off-peak hours like the morning and evening when the sun can in fact be more damaging to our eyes.

“In fact, during peak hours of sun exposure our brow ridge and eyelids naturally shield the eye from the UV rays, so sunglasses should especially be worn during the mornings and afternoon to ensure adequate protection.”

The World Health Organisation, the Mayo Clinic, the HSE, and other health organisations around the world advise using sunglasses to limit UV damage to eyes.

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“Just as with the skin, UV exposure to the eye is cumulative over a lifetime and may cause irreversible damage,” the WHO explains.

Sunglasses help your vision and protect your eyes. They make you feel more comfortable under bright light conditions as they reduce glare and improve contrast. Most importantly, good sunglasses filter UVA and UVB radiation and can prevent damage to the eye.”

“You cannot tell how much UV radiation a pair of sunglasses block based on the colour of the lenses, their darkness or their price. UV transmission through sunglasses varies considerably. However, most sunglasses on sale filter a large percentage of UV radiation,” the WHO says. 

Similarly, the HSE advises: “Guard your eyes against harm by wearing sunglasses with UV protection.”

To protect yourself from the sun and skin cancer, health experts also recommend staying out of the sun while it’s high in the sky; wearing clothes that cover most of your skin; putting on a hat; and applying suncream.

Some similar claims about suncream’s effectiveness have been shared online – but they’ve also been debunked.

Claims like these ones which suggest that something we use or encounter in daily life is causing us harm can create feelings of fear, which is a common tactic used in disinformation strategies. If you encounter something online that makes you feel worried or scared, it can be helpful to take a step back and look for the facts.

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

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