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Importance of Eye Safety in Sports and Outdoor Activities

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedMay 29, 2024

Eye safety in sports is crucial due to the high risk of injuries that can have lifelong consequences. Yet, it's often neglected, leading to thousands of permanent eye damage cases or blindness annually from sports-related activities.

Statistics from the American Academy of Ophthalmology reveal that around 30,000 sports-related eye injuries are treated in US emergency rooms yearly, with 90% being preventable through appropriate eyewear. Similarly, the National Center for Biotechnology Information reports over 30,000 yearly sports-related ocular injuries, often affecting young males and sometimes resulting in permanent vision loss.

This article aims to provide a detailed guide on eye safety, covering the eye's structure, common injuries, protective eyewear types, and features, sport-specific recommendations, maintenance of eye gear, and first aid for eye trauma to help you make informed decisions about eye safety.

🔑 Key Takeaways

  • The unique structure of the eye enables vision but also makes it vulnerable to injuries like corneal abrasions, blunt trauma, penetrating wounds, and UV damage, which can cause permanent vision impairment or blindness.
  • Protective eyewear like polycarbonate safety glasses, sports goggles, face shields, and prescription inserts should meet impact resistance standards like ASTM F803 and be specially designed for specific sports risks.
  • Players should inspect protective eyewear before each use, replace damaged parts, clean properly after use, store safely to prevent scratching, and get regular eye check-ups to update lens prescriptions.
  • First aid like gentle cold compresses, flushing foreign particles with natural tear flow, immediate medical care for embedded objects, chemical splashes, pain, vision issues, or inability to move the eye can prevent permanent damage.
  • Protective eyewear engineered for particular sports should be as instinctive as other gear like helmets and pads since it shields against severe, blinding injuries.
  • Awareness of the critical importance of eye protection encourages teammates, families, and communities to use proper eye guards for lifelong healthy vision.
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The Unique Structure of the Eye

The eye has an extraordinarily intricate structure to enable vision. The eyeball houses the retina, which contains light-sensitive cells that convert images into signals that travel via the optic nerve to the brain. The cornea and lens help refract light into the retina.

This entire structure is engulfed by the white outer layer called the sclera. In front, the eye is covered by a clear dome called the cornea. The eye is also padded internally by a gel-like substance called the vitreous humor. This unique arrangement makes our eyes both fragile and resilient. Understanding this anatomy highlights why we must protect our eyes from trauma.

Sports-Related Eye Injuries: Types and Causes

Sports and recreational activities subject eyes to various risks that can inflict injuries like:

  • Corneal abrasions: Scrapes on the exterior cornea, usually from contact with fingers, elbows, branches, etc. Corneal abrasions are very painful.
  • Blunt trauma: Bruising, inflammation resulting from a direct blow. Blunt trauma can cause internal bleeding and retinal damage.
  • Penetrating wounds: Perforating injuries from a foreign body like a fish hook or projectile. Penetrating wounds have a high risk of permanent vision damage.
  • UV damage: Exposure to ultraviolet rays increases the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.

The highest-risk activities are racquet sports, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, lacrosse, cycling, water sports, etc. However, even lower-intensity activities like hiking or fishing warrant eye protection. Preparation with the proper eye guards prevents needless, life-altering injuries.

Types of Protective Eyewear for Sports

Protective eyewear comes in many sport-specific varieties but can be broadly classified into four main types:

  1. Safety glasses have lens retention strings and impact-resistant lenses with partial ventilation. Safety glasses are best for low-intensity court sports.
  2. Goggles fully seal around the eye and offer better ventilation. Goggles are ideal for swimming. Some goggles cover prescription glasses.
  3. Face shields protect the entire face from frontal collisions. Face shields are used in ice hockey and lacrosse.
  4. Prescription inserts enable the use of prescription lenses with protective goggles/shields.

When selecting eye protection, one should ensure it meets specific impact resistance standards like the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) F803. One should also check for labels indicating compliance with standards like ANSI Z87.1. Materials like polycarbonate provide the highest strength.

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See prices for Face shields on Amazon

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Sport-specific Eye Protection Recommendations

It is important to use polycarbonate lenses with protectors that meet or exceed the requirements of the sport-specific ASTM standards, as these lenses are the most impact-resistant, thinner, and lighter than plastic, shatterproof, and provide UV protection. Specific recommendations are outlined below to guide athletes in selecting the right eye protection for various sports.

Racquet Sports (Tennis, Squash, Racquetball, etc.)

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Source: Playo

For racquet sports, which pose high risks from rapidly moving balls and close-quarters play, protective eyewear should offer extensive coverage on the sides and top, ventilation, and resistance to ball impacts up to 190 feet per second.

Polycarbonate goggles with anti-scratch and anti-fog coatings are recommended. These eye guards should be approved for ASTM F3164-19 or the most current version of that standard.


See prices for polycarbonate glasses on Amazon

Source: Olympics

In basketball, where there's a risk of contact injuries from fingers and elbows, players should use polycarbonate glasses with retention straps or goggles.

Lenses with anti-fog features are important for clear visibility during fast-paced plays. The recommended standard for basketball eye guards is ASTM F803-19.


See prices for polycarbonate faceshields on Amazon

Source: NYtimes

For baseball and softball, where balls travel at high speeds, batters need helmets with polycarbonate face shields covering from the forehead to the eyes. Fielders require lenses offering light filtering and impact resistance exceeding safety standards, alongside side shields and straps for better retention.

Baseball/softball protective eyewear should be approved to ASTM F803-19 or the most current sport-specific ASTM standards.​


See prices for anti-fog swim googles on Amazon

Source: Britannica

Swimmers should opt for fitted goggles with anti-fog coating, cushioned silicone gaskets for comfort and leak prevention, and UVA/UVB-blocking lenses. Prescription inserts are also available for vision correction.


Source: Olympic

In hockey, players should use a wire or polycarbonate visor/shield attached to the helmet, protecting without obstructing the visual field. For goalies, full-wire cage face protectors are necessary. All hockey eye and face protectors should have The Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) approval​​.

Women’s Lacrosse

Source: Top End Sports

For women's lacrosse, sports eye guards (goggles) are recommended. These should be approved to ASTM F3077-17 or the most current version of that standard and must bear the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) Certification Mark beginning in 2020​​.

Caring for and Maintaining Protective Eyewear

To retain their protective qualities, sports eyewear must be properly maintained:

  • One should inspect lenses for scratches/cracks before each use and replace them if damaged.
  • Gently clean lenses with mild soap/lens cleaner and a microfiber cloth after each use.
  • Store eyewear in a sturdy case to prevent scratching.
  • Replace goggle straps if they lose elasticity.
  • Avoid keeping eyewear in very hot/cold environments.

One should also have regular eye check-ups to update prescriptions and monitor eye health. Protective eyewear should incorporate current lens prescriptions for clear vision.

First Aid for Eye Injuries

Despite taking precautions, eye injuries can still occur. Here is how to administer first aid:

  • For scratches/abrasions: Do not touch or rub the eye. Let natural blinking help clear irritants, and apply a cold compress. Seek medical help if the pain persists.
  • For blunt trauma: Gently apply a cold compress to reduce swelling/bleeding without putting pressure on the eye. Seek immediate care if your vision is affected.
  • For foreign objects: Do not rub the eye. Try relaxing facial muscles and blinking to promote tear flow to flush out the particle. If unsuccessful, seek medical help. Never attempt to remove an embedded object.
  • For chemical exposures: Immediately rinse the eye under a stream of room temperature, clean water for at least 20 minutes, and go to the ER. Calling poison control can also be helpful.

One should always seek urgent medical care if there is severe pain, change in vision, inability to move the eye, penetrating injury, or the possibility of a foreign body stuck on or in the eye. Speedy treatment is vital to prevent permanent damage.

📓 Related Articles

For further discussions related to vision, please refer to these articles:

Final Words

Our eyes enable us to immerse ourselves in sports and outdoor activities we cherish. Yet, we often take vision for granted and overlook how exposed our eyes are in these settings. Protective gear engineered to shield against specific risks is readily available and affordable. With this gear and proper care, most eye injuries can be averted, saving eyesight.

Making eye safety gear as instinctive as grabbing your helmet, gloves, or pads ensures many years of healthy vision and enjoying activities you love. Share this article to spread awareness of eye protection’s paramount importance so teammates, family, and community members can continue seeing the games they play and the beauty surrounding them for years to come.

FAQs on Eye Safety

Can I wear regular glasses for sports?

Regular glasses are not recommended for sports as they may not provide adequate protection and can break, causing further injury. Sports-specific protective eyewear is designed to withstand impact and provide better protection.

Should children wear eye protection in sports?

Absolutely. Children are at risk of eye injuries in sports and should wear appropriate protective eyewear, especially in sports involving balls, racquets, or physical contact.

How can I ensure a proper fit for my sports eyewear?

Consult with an eye care professional or a specialized sports eyewear retailer to ensure the eyewear fits well, stays in place during activity, and does not obstruct vision.

Can prescription lenses be incorporated into sports eyewear?

Yes, many sports eyewear options can be fitted with prescription lenses to ensure clear vision while providing the necessary protection.

How often should sports eyewear be replaced?

Sports eyewear should be replaced if damaged or scratched or the protective coating wears off. It's also advisable to replace them if there have been significant changes in your vision or prescription.