What You Should Know to Protect Your Eyes During the Eclipse

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Apr 07, 2024

Eclipses, both solar and lunar, captivate millions worldwide with their rare beauty and the awe they inspire. However, the excitement of witnessing such events can sometimes overshadow the importance of eye safety.

Staring directly at the sun during an eclipse can cause irreversible damage to the eyes, a condition known as solar retinopathy. We will guide you through the essentials of protecting your eyes while enjoying the celestial spectacle, blending scientific insights with cautionary tales to ensure you witness this year’s event safely.

The Danger of Direct Viewing

Directly observing the sun without proper protection can lead to permanent retinal damage. This damage occurs because the sun’s intense light can burn the retina, the part of the eye responsible for receiving light and sending images to the brain.

A detailed close-up of a human eye. The eye has a striking amber-colored iris

Source: Joel Staveley/Unsplash

The risk is even higher during an eclipse, as the usual reflex to squint or look away from the bright sun is diminished, encouraging longer exposure to harmful rays (via National Eye Institute).

A Stark Reminder from 2017

A vivid example of the dangers posed by unsafe eclipse viewing came in 2017 when a Staten Island woman suffered significant retinal damage after watching an eclipse with glasses that failed to offer adequate protection.

A striking image of a total solar eclipse captured at the moment known as the diamond ring effect

Source: Jongsun Lee/Unsplash

Her experience, detailed by Mount Sinai’s New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in JAMA Ophthalmology, serves as a powerful warning. She reported seeing a persistent “sun-eating-moon” image, reminiscent of a crescent moon or “Pac-Man,” even when she closed her eyes.

Understanding Solar Retinopathy

Per the Cleveland Clinic, solar retinopathy is the medical term for eye damage caused by looking directly at the sun. This condition results from the phototoxic effects of intense solar radiation on the retinal tissues, leading to visual impairment.

A captivating image of a solar eclipse, with the moon centrally positioned in front of the sun

Source: Bryan Goff/Unsplash

Symptoms can include blurred vision, a dark or blind spot in the center of vision, increased sensitivity to light, and in some cases, distortion of colors. These symptoms can be permanent, emphasizing the need for caution.

The Safe Zone: Totality Explained

According to NASA, totality during a solar eclipse offers a brief window when it’s safe to gaze directly at the sky without eye protection. This phase occurs when the moon completely covers the sun, temporarily blocking its harmful rays.

A sequence of images capturing a solar eclipse progression. Starting from the left, the first three images show the moon gradually covering the sun, transitioning from a crescent to a near-total eclipse. The central image features a total solar eclipse, with the moon fully obscuring the sun, surrounded by a glowing corona

Source: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

However, this is only safe for a very short period of totality and not before or after, when partial exposure occurs. Proper timing and protective measures are crucial outside this fleeting safe period.

Approved Eclipse Glasses: Your Best Defense

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) recommends using eclipse glasses that meet the international standard ISO 12312-2 for safe viewing. These glasses are designed to block out harmful ultraviolet, visible, and infrared radiation.

A group of people, including a man and a woman in the center, are gazing upwards at the sky with solar eclipse glasses on. They are outside, standing in front of a building, with expressions of curiosity and amazement

Source: NASA

Picking the right glasses is crucial, as the AAS has listed over 100 suppliers on their site, ensuring you have plenty of verified options for protecting your eyes during an eclipse.


DIY Viewing Methods: Pinhole Projectors

For those who prefer a hands-on approach or lack access to certified eclipse glasses, creating a pinhole projector is a safe and effective way to enjoy the eclipse (via NASA). By allowing sunlight to pass through a small hole onto a flat surface, viewers can observe the eclipse’s progress indirectly.

pinhole projector used for viewing eclipse

Source: NASA

This method prevents direct exposure to harmful solar radiation, safeguarding your vision while still partaking in the event.


Real-life Consequences: The Story of Two Friends

Lou Tomososki and Roger Duvall starkly illustrate the lifelong impact of a moment’s choice to view an eclipse without proper protection. As teenagers, they suffered eye damage from observing a partial solar eclipse without any protection (via USA Today).

An empty, modern hospital room bathed in natural light from large windows. The room contains a single patient bed with white linens, an IV stand with a hanging saline bag

Source: vecstock/Freepik

Decades later, they still experience vision problems, a constant reminder of the risks involved. Their story is an example of why taking precautions is non-negotiable.


A Call for Preparedness

The 2024 solar eclipse, due to its path over several major cities, is expected to draw even larger crowds, underscoring the importance of preparedness.

Four individuals are perched on the edge of a rocky cliff, looking upwards toward the sky with eclipse glasses on. They are surrounded by natural foliage, indicating a remote or wilderness setting

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Experts urge future viewers to plan ahead and ensure they have the necessary protection to prevent eye damage. This event presents an opportunity for widespread education on the importance of eye safety during eclipses.


Counterfeit Glasses: A Modern Problem

The prevalence of counterfeit eclipse glasses poses a significant risk to unsuspecting consumers. These fake glasses may not offer adequate protection from the sun’s harmful rays, leading to potential eye damage.

A man wearing a blue shirt compares two styles of glasses

Source: Freepik

The AAS has issued warnings and guidance on how to spot and avoid these unsafe products, emphasizing the importance of purchasing from verified sources.


A Community Experience

Eclipse watching can be a memorable community event, bringing people together to witness the marvels of our universe. Schools, astronomy clubs, and local communities often organize viewing parties, equipped with the necessary safety measures to ensure everyone can enjoy the event without harm.

A diverse group of spectators, from children to adults, are seated outdoors looking upwards through solar eclipse glasses

Source: Wikimedia Commons

These gatherings not only foster a sense of community but also provide an educational experience for all ages.


Prioritizing Eye Health

As we prepare for the upcoming eclipse, it’s essential to remember the importance of protecting our eyesight.

The photo captures a total solar eclipse in a twilight sky, with the silhouette of the moon perfectly centered over the sun. The surrounding sky is a gradient of light blue to sunset orange

Source: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

By following expert advice, using approved viewing methods, and spreading awareness about the risks and precautions, we can all enjoy these celestial phenomena safely.