Protecting Your Eyes From the Snow: A How-to Guide

One of the best parts about living in Vancouver in the winter is that we’re so close to a ton of different local ski mountains and we’re a mere two hours from the world-renowned Whistler Blackcomb. Given our location, it’s no wonder the majority of Vancouverites have at least dabbled in a snow sport. Whether you’re into skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice climbing, winter camping (yeah, it’s a thing) or anything else that involves being outdoors, you’ll want to keep your eyes safe.

Winter eyewear protection winter sports

Just because it’s freezing, doesn’t mean ultraviolet (UV) rays are taking a hiatus. They can penetrate through the clouds even on dreary winter days and the snow actually makes things worse. The sun’s rays intensify when they bounce off of snow and ice (much like what happens when you’re surrounded by water) and this glare reflects into your eyes, which can potentially cause snow blindness.

Being that we’re Kerrisdale eyewear specialists here at the Spectacle Shoppe, we want you to have the best vision possible so we’re sharing our guide to protecting eyes from snow and the cold.

Snow and Eyes: The Basics 

Snow, ice, water and sand are all highly reflective. While most people know to wear sunglasses while lounging on the beach, eye protection is even more crucial in snowy weather. In fact, researchers found that the UV light reflection ratio is usually 10 to 25 percent on beaches and 80 percent in snow-covered areas. Compounding matters, the strength of UV rays increases at higher altitudes and many snow sports take place on mountains.

Damage caused by any type of UV light is known as photokeratitis, which is like an eyeball sunburn. It affects the top layer of the cornea as well as the conjunctiva (the membrane that covers the whites of the eyes and the inside of the eyelids). Photokeratitis can result from not protecting your eyes when staring at the sun, such as during a solar eclipse, tanning beds, arc welding or reflections from the aforementioned water, sand, snow and ice. When it’s from the reflection of UV rays off snow and ice, it’s called snow blindness. However, snow blindness can also mean the freezing or drying of the cornea because of frigid temperatures or really dry air.

The symptoms of snow blindness can include:

  • Pain
  • Feeling as if you have sand or grit in your eyes
  • Redness
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blurry vision or less commonly, complete temporary vision loss
  • Swelling in the eyes or eyelids
  • Tearing
  • Twitching eyelids
  • Headache
  • Constricted pupils
  • Seeing halos or a glare from lights
  • Color changes in vision

Snow blindness is painful but, thankfully, temporary. Similar to a sunburn on your skin, the symptoms don’t appear until after the damage has already happened. The longer the eyes are exposed to the UV rays, the more severe the case will be. So, how long does snow blindness last? The corneas usually heal in 24 to 48 hours but it will depend on the severity. Since vision is blurry, you shouldn’t drive or do anything that requires clear eyesight until you recover.

Though the actual snow blindness will go away, the effects of UV exposure are cumulative. In the long term, extended exposure has been linked to certain kinds of cataracts, the acceleration of age-related macular degeneration, cancer of the eye, growths and, of course, wrinkles around the eyes. Children’s eyes are more vulnerable than adults, so parents should make protective eyewear a priority whether kids are engaging in winter sports or just playing in the snow.

Treating Snow Blindness

If you visit an eye doctor for snow blindness, they’ll diagnose you by examining your eyes, inquiring about your recent outdoor activities or through fluorescein dye staining using special eye drops to reveal areas of damage. However, photokeratitis will go away on its own and unless you’re in extreme pain or the symptoms are severe, your doctor probably won’t suggest medical treatment.

To alleviate discomfort, you should:

  • Take out your contact lenses immediately
  • Find a dark room and try to stay there, avoiding sunlight until you feel better
  • Wear sunglasses
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes
  • Use preservative-free artificial tears to keep your eyes moist
  • Close your eyes and place a cold, damp washcloth over them
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers according to the instructions on the bottle if the above steps don’t help with pain

If the symptoms last beyond a day or two or continue to get worse after 24 hours, seek medical attention. Your eye doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops, oral pain meds in rare cases, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory eye drops.

Winter Eye Protection 

The good news is that snow blindness is easily prevented and keeping your eyes healthy in winter is simple. Here are some tips for protecting your eyes from the snow and cold:

  • Wear quality sunglasses with 100% UV protection any time you’re outdoors or driving during the daylight hours year-round. If you wear prescription glasses regularly, photochromic lenses are convenient, allowing you to get by with just one pair of glasses. Sunglasses with large lenses offer more protection and wraparound models or those with side shields will block both direct and indirect light.
  • For snow sports such as skiing, snowboarding or climbing, wear UV-blocking snow goggles that fit really well and protect the eyes from above, below and the sides. They’ll shield you from UV light and debris like flying ice particles. There are prescription sports goggles and ski goggles if you need vision correction.
  • Keep your eyes moist by using a humidifier, artificial tears and staying hydrated. Try not to sit or stand right next to heat sources like heating vents.
  • If you wear contact lenses and your eyes are constantly drying out or getting irritated by the wind and cold, take a break from them every now and then and put on your glasses instead.

If you need help finding the best pair of sunglasses or sports glasses for both kids and adults that will protect your eyes all winter long, stop by the Spectacle Shoppe and we’ll point you in the right direction. Not in the Kerrisdale area? Check out our collection online and feel free to give us a call or send us an email for guidance.   

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Morgan Nahanee
Morgan Nahanee


Morgan is The Spectacle Shoppe’s Lead Technician and Customer Relations Specialist as well as a Principle of Spectacle Shoppe. She is a licensed contact lens fitter and dispensing optician and has been working for The Spectacle Shoppe since 2006. She graduated from Douglas College’s two year Dispensing Optician and Contact Lens Fitting Program in 2008. From contact lens fitting to eyeglass repairs and adjustments Morgan is eager to help you with any optical needs. Connect with Morgan Nahanee on Google+