There was a time when wearing sunglasses would have been seen as too 'cool' for school, but for pupils at a pioneering primary in Australia they are now a compulsory part of the uniform. The move is aimed at protecting young eyes from the sun's dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays. Education authorities say they are considering adopting the plan at all state schools.

Stephan Vrachas, headmaster of Sydney's Arncliffe Public School, where sunglasses are now compulsory for children from kindergarten to year six, said that students had no problems wearing the glasses in the playground. The "sunnies" as they are called in Australia, would soon become "routine" for pupils, he told commercial radio.

Ultraviolet rays

Excessive exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays, already blamed for skin cancer, can also lead to cataracts. The sun emits harmful ultraviolet rays and prolonged exposure to this radiation may severely affect the skin, eyes or the immune system. Sunglasses are particularly important in summer when ultraviolet exposure is up to five times higher than in winter.

Fashionable sunglasses offer little or no protection from harmful rays emitted by the sun. People using sunglasses just for their brand name or style may be risking blindness, warn scientists. Teenagers and young adults often choose sunglasses purely on the basis of their price and style without cross checking their safety standards.

"It is particularly worrying that younger people have so little regard for their eyes when up to 80 per cent of exposure to UV rays over a person's life occurs before the age of 18," said Susan Blakeney, optometric adviser at the College of Optometrists.

Experts add that people with light-coloured eyes are more at risk from damage caused by ultraviolet rays if they fail to wear good-quality sunglasses.

Prevention in the UAE

Dr Jasmine of the Aaliyah Medical Centre in Ajman believes that it would be good if the UAE also started taking measures to make sunglasses mandatory in schools and colleges — at least in the summers, so that the UV rays do not affect students. She advises everyone to check the quality of the sunglasses before buying, saying that nowadays even some of the expensive ones are not of good quality. "We have to make sure that it is a renowned brand like Ray Ban," said Jasmine. "The problem with UV rays is that they increase the chances of developing cataract, especially for people who spend a lot of time outdoors during summer."

Fashion or necessity?

When asked if sunglasses have graduated from being a fashion accessory to a necessary nowadays, college students were divided in their opinions.

Engineering student at BITS Pilani University in Dubai, Shuchi Dangwal, felt that "sunglasses in colleges are fine only if they are absolutely useful."

Another peer at BITS Pilani, Sushreeta said, "Yes. I do think glasses are necessary and not just for style. UV rays do affect the eye power, especially in a country like this where there is a lot of sun the year round."

Shirish Shetty, a computer sciences student at the same university thinks that sunglasses "are cool". "It would be good if they became compulsory! It's a good opportunity for students to be fashionable!" she said.

Farhan Mohammed at the London City College believes that it is a good idea to think of sunglasses as a protective need more than as a fashion accessory as the effects of UV rays are known to cause damage. "For most people sunglasses are a fashion accessory.

Their main concerns are appearance, comfort and price. But many consumers overlook what optometrists or ophthalmologists consider the most important factor — protection from ultraviolet radiation. I feel that so far sunglasses have been more of a fashion accessory than a necessity for most people."

Swati, a student of business and engineering, believes that "sunglasses can only protect from UV rays to a certain extent, so it is pointless for students to wear them in school or college."

Fashion accessory or social statement, in a country like the UAE where the sun shines bright and strong throughout the year, more awareness must be raised about the harmful effects of UV rays. Students must be more strongly cautioned and properly advised on the appropriate eye wear. It is important that they wear sunglasses, and make sure that the 'shades' they buy actually protect their eyes.

Spotting fakes

Although all brands sold legally must meet basic standards, there are plenty of copies of expensive and fashionable makes in the market that do not comply. Wearing poor-quality sunglasses could damage the eyes and increase the risk of cataract, which can lead to blindness later in life.

Researchers have suggested a simple quality test before buying sunglasses: hold them at arm's length and tilt them slightly. Focus on an object in the distance, move them up and down and see if there is any distortion, especially at the lens edges. If the lenses are of high quality, there should be no movement.

— The writer is student of Our Own English High School, Dubai