paddlehealthy eye protection Shari Coble

Your eyes are so much more than just the windows to your soul. Keep them protected with advice from surfing’s leading optometrist, Dr. Bill Petersen. Photo: Mike Fields

Eye Protection | Paddle Healthy Presented By SPZ

As standup paddlers, we're exposed to myriad outdoor conditions that have potential to cause serious and, in some cases, permanent damage to our eyes. To keep our readers protected, we're turning to Southern California's surfing eye doc, Dr. Bill Petersen O.D. of Dana Point, California.

Not only is Dr. Petersen an optometrist, a lifelong waterman and founding member of Surfers Medical Association, he's also the inventor of dark-tinted contact lenses called Suntacts. And did we mention he's a standup paddler?

In this first installment, Dr. Petersen helps us recognize which elemental exposures to focus on when protecting our eyes, understand the importance of our tears and employ preventative steps to ensure healthy eyes into our elderly years. —Shari Coble

Doctor Petersen:

Standup paddlers face the same eye issues that any outdoor athlete would face: They need sun and wind protection. Protection from the sun is important due to ultraviolet (UV) rays that damage ocular tissue. Protection from wind is necessary because of the wind's dehydrating effects on our tears.

Standup paddlers can be divided into two categories. The first: 'flatwater paddlers' who don’t fall in the water or have saltwater exposure. The second: 'surfing paddlers' who do have exposure to saltwater [when falling], and consequently don’t wear sunglasses. Surfing paddlers should be most concerned because of their lack of UV and wind protection, as well as their susceptibility to saltwater rinsing away their tears.

Tears are more than just a byproduct of emotion. They're a complex necessity of vision, composed of three layers: mucus, saltwater, and oil. The layer of mucus is flush against the corneal tissue. It's backed by a layer of saltwater, and floating on top is a layer of oil. The saltwater in our tears are approximately .9 percent salt, compared to saltwater from the ocean, which is about three percent saline. The oil is produced by twenty-four individual glands in both the upper and lower eyelids and is very important for comfortable eyes.

'Keratitis sicca’ is the clinical name for a dry eye. This is aggravated by saltwater, wind, and sun. Dry eye can be very debilitating and painful, and is very common in people over 50—especially women. Symptoms include dry, scratchy eyes, extreme light sensitivity and pain. It can literally keep you in the house because it’s too painful to go outside.


The most important preventative measure for anyone who spends time outdoors and exposed to the elements is to protect the eye from UV radiation; hats, sunglasses, and UV-absorbing contact lenses are all options for this.

Sunglasses are the most popular option, but there are many myths involved in how and what is most protective. They range in price, but price doesn't translate to protection, so don't be fooled by pretty-penny pricetags. Almost all shades protect your eyes from UV, but if you're buying cheap glasses, check to make sure. Look for glasses with a label that says "99-100 percent UV absorption" or "UV 400," rather than just saying "absorbs UV." Another thing to consider when purchasing glasses: Polarized lenses help cut glare and allow for crisper vision, but they do not add sun protection.

There are many contact lenses on the market that block UV, including Acuvue and Cooper Vision. These UV-blocking contact lenses are clear (they aren't tinted dark) but they still block UV, which is invisible. Talk to your doctor about which lens works for your lifestyle, as people that don’t get out in the sun much may even benefit from a lens that allows UV because we may need a minimum amount of UV for health . But, someone who's out in the sun a lot should be concerned with the opposite: getting too much UV.

A tinted lens or sunglass makes the eye more comfortable, and should be a staple in the flatwater paddler's preventative health kit. Surfing paddlers who are experts and rarely fall can also wear sunglasses, but should keep in mind that sunglasses quickly get beaded with water and fog up, which is why protective contact lenses, like Suntacts, work best.

 Taking a eye-vitamins is also a very good idea for water people. ICaps and Ocuvit are just two of the many vitamins formulated specifically to benefit eyes.

Those with a family history of eye issues should also consider taking an additional supplement called Lutein 20 mg with Zeaxanthin, as these two carotenoids (first extracted from carrots) have been shown to protect the eye from UV damage.

More tips to come, but these should get you started with seeing the need for eye protection clearly.
Dr. Bill Petersen O.D.

Stay tuned for Part II of our Paddler Eye Health Series presented by SPZ, coming soon.

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