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Fifty shades of cute

Sunglasses a healthy accessory in children’s wear

His fauxhawk is styled with sunscreen. His sunsuit features a lobster and a sun-protection factor of 50-plus. And his UV-blocking shades filter harmful rays from his eyes.

Sure, Asher Caro looks cool. But the 10-month-old is also well-guarded against the sun during his Spokane family’s vacation at Priest Lake – and sliding a pair of sunglasses over his blue eyes is part of the routine, said his mother, Krista Caro. His parents’ goal is to get Asher used to sun-protection measures now, so he takes them himself when he gets older.

“Coming from light-eyed, pale-skinned people, that’s pretty important,” Krista Caro said.

Sunglasses for kids may be an afterthought for others – or regarded mostly as a cute accessory. But the lenses in kids’ eyes are clearer than adults’, which means more damaging ultraviolet light passes through them to do potential damage. And, like skin, eyes suffer sun damage cumulatively – so children who go outside sunglasses-free may be at greater risk as adults of eye problems caused by sun exposure, including early-onset cataracts and macular degeneration.

“The risk is not so much what happens now, but total UV exposure when they’re older,” said Dr. Jeffrey Colburn, a pediatric ophthalmologist at the Spokane Eye Clinic.

Sunny days’ downside

Ultraviolet light damages our cells’ DNA. In our skin – including the thinner skin around our eyes – that leads to mutations that lead to skin cancer. In our eyes, Colburn said, UV light first travels through the lens, where cataracts form. It then falls on the retina in the back of the eye, which can lead to macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.

Another eye problem caused by sun exposure: bubbly spots that grow on the whites of the eyes, called pingueculae. A pingeucula can grow over the cornea, impairing vision, said Dr. Caroline Shea, of Northwest Pediatric Ophthalmology in Spokane.

While some ultraviolet light still reaches us during grayer seasons – you can get a sunburn on a cloudy day – the UV index is higher during sunnier months. Affected by latitude and elevation along with cloud cover, the UV index reflects ultraviolet radiation at a particular place on a particular day.

July and August are Spokane’s sunniest months, averaging 80 percent and 78 percent “possible sunshine,” respectively. (In December, it’s 23 percent.) Seattle, by comparison, sees sun only 65 percent of daylight hours in July, said Jon Fox, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s office in Spokane.

In July, Spokane’s UV index ranges from 6 to 8 on a scale of 1 to 11, Fox said. In Seattle, it’s 5 or 6.

Because of Spokane’s relative sunniness and many residents’ summer activities – days spent on the sunlight-reflecting water – Shea said she encourages parents to get their kids in UV-blocking sunglasses starting early.

“I try to get them used to (wearing sunglasses) when they’re 6 to 8 months old,” Shea said. “If they reject them, just keep trying until they realize, ‘Yeah, this is really more comfortable.’ ”

How to choose

Not all kids’ sunglasses are built the same. But they don’t have to be expensive to be effective, Shea said. A pair from the drugstore will work fine, she said, as long as they provide adequate UVA and UVB protection and won’t break easily, their sharp parts injuring kids.

As for kids who wear prescription glasses, Shea said, most are outfitted with polycarbonate lenses, which are less likely to break. Those lenses also provide ultraviolet protection.

Lenses made of other materials may not offer UV protection, but they can be dipped in an invisible coating that blocks UV rays.

Whether they’re prescription glasses or nonprescription sunglasses, Shea warned, don’t mistake tinting for UV protection. Protection against ultraviolet rays comes not from the tint or color of the lenses, but from a chemical applied during the manufacturing process.

Prescription glasses that darken in the sunlight or tinted fashion frames don’t protect your eyes unless they also have that anti-UV coating. In fact, they may cause more harm than good. A tinted lens requires your pupil to dilate wider to allow in more light so you can see – and more UV rays, too, if the lenses aren’t coated.

What to look for – besides good looks – in sunglasses for kids:

• Good UV protection. Find sunglasses labeled either as blocking 99 percent or 100 percent of ultraviolet light or as meeting “ANSI Z80.3” blocking requirements set by the American National Standards Institute.

Some sunglasses may bear labels vaguely promising UV protection, but if the percentage isn’t specified, they could be inadequate.

• A proper fit. For older children, bigger is better, Shea said – larger lenses and wraparound styles offer more protection for eyes and skin.

For babies, it may take a few tries to find a pair that won’t be flung to the ground.

Kristi Theisen, of Spokane, said her son, Owen, had a pair featuring small frames and a Velcro strap that “fit his 5-month-old head perfectly” – and that he left on during hikes.

“We have another pair of sunglasses for him, but he takes them off right away and is not interested in wearing them,” she wrote in an email. “So I think it’s key to find a pair that fits right. Just because your little one takes off one pair doesn’t mean (she or he) will try to take off all pairs.”

• Sports goggles, if your child plays often. Designed to stay firmly in place, goggles reduce the risk of injury from broken glasses.