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The Eclipse and Your Eyes: What You Need To Know

Staring at the sun, not a good choice right? Well we wanted to not just tell you not to (Don't stare at the sun by the way!) but also wanted to tell you why that's maybe not such a good idea and what it actually does to one of the most important organs in your body: your eyes.

1.) It's not the TOTAL Eclipse, it's the Partial That Actually Causes Problems

If the Sun is fully eclipsed then you casually take a gander without considerable worry to what may happen to your eyes and we here in Douglas have a great length of time at roughly 2 minutes and 22 seconds of gazing. But we humans aren't known for our patience so we tend to keep looking up waiting for that precise moment we can give the event a hard stare. The problem arises when we keep staring at a partially eclipsed sun for longer and longer periods of time. According to Dick Land from the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston (that's a Harvard Medical School affiliate btw): "NO damage or risk to the eye is involved when looking at the total solar eclipse, even with optical aids, such as binoculars. BUT the bright disk (which for us in Douglas begins to really form at roughly 11:00am MST), no matter how small or partial crescent, will cause damage, and optical aids must not be used unless special filters are used and informed supervision is on hand."

Some of the foremost dangers to your eyes have to do with heat (infrared radiation), UV (ultraviolet radiation), and from excessive blue light (more on that guy later, trust us worth the wait). As well when we on an off day accidentally glance up at the sun we usually don't have a point in general to fixate upon and stare down almost immediately. But when an eclipse begins the orb shape of the moon moving in front of the sun forms a natural crescent which in turn gives our eyes something on which we can now focus. This means we tend to stare for longer and longer periods and cause more and more damage.

2.) Your Retinas and You

You Retinas are special. Your retina is a transparent neural tissue at the back of the eye that transmits light via photosensitive cells called rods and cones. The retina converts this light energy into signals and transmits them via the optic nerve, giving the images to your brain meaning you can in fact see the world in front of you. Pretty cool right? Also of note: The Retina is a VERY thin layer of tissue and given it's job obviously hyper sensitive to light, especially of the intense variety.

To describe this scientifically in a way we all can process imagine when you've accidentally looked at a light bulb when it was turned on. You usually have what's called an after burn phenomenon when you close your eyes: you can still see spots moving around behind your eyelids. This is a momentary intense image relayed on the retina, but after blinking a few times tends to dissipate.

When we stare for longer and longer amounts of time at the sun or a partially eclipsed sun the damage becomes worse and worse for our very important retinas. Permanent damage to the retina from staring at the sun has been clocked at occurring in less than 100 seconds. Scientists even use moments like solar eclipses to gather information on eye damage because well, we can't seem to help ourselves.

3.) What About The Cornea?

Yes, what about your cornea? So glad you asked. A cornea is composed of several layers and is the outer casing of your eyeball. It's part of your eye's natural way of keeping dirt and debris from getting any closer to the inner portions of your eye. The cornea also helps your eye absorb oxygen and nutrients from tears so it can refresh upon blinking. But get this it's built to help focus light (see above why that's important) to your eye and back to the retina to your optic nerve. Working together your cornea and lens help to focus this light, kind of like a camera lens. Another important job it has is to filter out UV rays. Well the UV radiation you receive when you stare upwards at the biggest star in our galaxy can cause your cornea like any other piece of tissue on your body to become sunburned. Yes, your nightmares are true, you can actually sunburn your eyes. And yep, that sunburn of your cornea works just the same as sunburn to any other part of your skin. But for your eye you have the added consideration of not only intense pain, but vision loss: possibly temporary sometimes permanent. Yeah, so not worth it.

If your cornea becomes compromised this means naturally your lens and retinas can become even more harmed leading to you guessed it, either short-term or permanent vision problems.

4.) Blue Light

You've probably heard of ultraviolet and infrared radiation types. But kind of newly (well in the scope of medical history it's considered new) researched phenomena is Blue Light.

Blue light is defined as: "Light is made up of electromagnetic particles that travel in waves. These waves emit energy, and range in length and strength. The shorter the wavelength; the higher the energy. The length of the waves is measured in nanometers (nm), with 1 nanometer equaling 1 billionth of a meter. Every wavelength is represented by a different color, and is grouped into the following categories: gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet (UV) rays, visible light, infrared light, and radio waves. Together these wavelengths make up the electromagnetic spectrum.

However the human eye is sensitive to only one part of this spectrum: visible light. Visible light is that part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is seen as colors: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Blue light has a very short wavelength, and so produces a higher amount of energy. Studies suggest that, over time, exposure to the blue end of the light spectrum could cause serious long-term damage to your eyes."

With Blue Light engineers are even talking about changing light bulbs to have built-in coatings so they can produce warmer i.e less blue light in homes. And the general consensus based on research is to limit screen exposure (yes your computer, mobile devices, tablets) two hours before bedtime, and even consider wearing good old blue blockers or coated glass or contact lenses.

Again Dr. Land: "[excessive] blue light can lead to biochemical damage to receptor cells and their environment in the sensitive neural tissue. Documentation is growing that excessive exposure to blue light may, in most individuals, result in Macular Degeneration and blindness in people when they become older." In layman's terms: "You may think you recovered from staring at the sun or harming your eyes from exposure, but you could go blind or develop a serious eye disease later in life." So we cannot underscore or emphasize enough the importance of averting your eyes in the run up to the TOTAL eclipse, especially when considering your long-term health.

5.) Those Most At Risk

You may be able to exert self-control or a custody of your eyes if you go outside during the run up to the Total Eclipse, but there are going to be those whose natural curiosity is going to get the better of them. Yes, your kids are going to be most prone to wanting to look up in the hours and minutes leading up to the total Eclipse. Also of note, their eyes are the clearest meaning free from the scarring we all accumulate over the course of a lifetime. So their eyes are more adept at bringing in these harmful heat rays and light into a cleaner eye setting which can mean more damage.

So how do you use their natural curiosity and help them "monitor" the progress while also keeping their eyes covered and averted? Here are some ideas:

  • Purchase APPROVED and SAFE Eclipse Glasses for them to wear in the hours leading up to the Eclipse.
  • Make a Pinhole Projector: Stanford University's Solar Center Has Some Great Explainer Videos and Tutorials: Click Here!
  • If you have older children (upper elementary and beyond), help underscore the importance of everyone in the family keeping their eyes averted until it is safe to view the Total Eclipse. Your older children can also help their younger siblings understand and keep an eye on them. Make it a team effort!

Those of us who are older still have a risk no doubt, so no matter the age exerting extreme caution when staring upward during the Eclipse must be employed.


There you have it. Don't look at the sun if possible, and especially don't stare at it! Keep in mind during the TOTAL eclipse you have no worry of any of these harmful effects, and it's likened to the same ratio of radiation as say looking at the moon. A Solar Eclipse is also one of nature's greatest and most beautiful phenomenon, so enjoy!