In a world full of fancy devices capable of everything from monitoring every step you take to when you’re going to get your next period, it takes a lot to impress us. One quick Google search and we can look at images or videos of pretty much anything we can think of — for better or worse. But even with all these technological advancements, it’s hard not to get excited about Monday’s solar eclipse.
It’s the first time that the contiguous United States has seen a total solar eclipse since 1979, and even if you don’t live in the ominously named Path of Totality — the parts of the country where the total eclipse will be visible — you should be able to see at least part of it.
A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, blocking all or part of the sun. The whole event on Monday will be about three hours — beginning to end — but the longest period the eclipse will be visible at any one given point will be around two minutes and 40 seconds.
So if the sun is going to be blocked, it should be OK to look at it, right? No — actually, it’s not, and looking directly at the solar eclipse without proper eyewear can really hurt your eyes. To make sure we’re prepared for Monday’s big event, we spoke with some leading eye health experts who told us about eclipse eye safety and how to view the celestial event without hurting your eyes.
Why shouldn’t you look directly at a solar eclipse?
In short, because even though part of the sun may be blocked, when viewed directly, it can cause permanent damage to the central retina, Dr. Charles Eifrig, an ophthalmologist at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, explains. What’s even scarier is that it only takes a few seconds staring at the sun to cause permanent damage, he adds.
Dr. James Vann, an optometrist and Transitions Pro Forum member recommends that you do not look at the eclipse directly at all, at any point.
“There is a lot of excitement around this celestial event, but we cannot reinforce how important it is to take safety precautions when viewing the eclipse,” Vann says. “It is never safe to look directly at the sun and the eclipse is no different.”
But given the fact that the sun is partially or fully covered, we have a tendency to look at the sun, even inadvertently, thinking it’s safe, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, says Dr. T. Powers Griffin Jr., an optometrist from Laguna Niguel, California, and member of the American Academy of Optometry.
Vann adds that the only exception may be during the brief moments of totality — when the moon directly lines up with the sun, blocking its rays — that some parts of the country will experience.
“Experts claim it is then safe to remove your eclipse glasses,” he says. “But even then, it is still very important to be vigilant to protect your eyes before and after totality.”
How can it hurt your eyes?
As children, Eifrig explains, many of us would use a magnifying glass and the power of the sun’s rays to burn holes in leaves or an ant on a sidewalk. Similarly, the eye serves as a magnifier of the sun’s rays and focuses the powerful light directly onto the most crucial part of your vision—the retina, he adds.
“Looking at the sun can be uncomfortable, but it will not cause physical pain, so people don’t realize they are damaging their vision,” Vann explains. In the short term, excessive exposure to UV can literally burn the cornea, just like it does the skin, causing redness, pain, loss of vision and a feeling of grittiness. Looking at the sun can also cause solar retinopathy, which occurs when bright light from the sun floods the retina after staring at the sun for too long, Vann adds.
Both Griffin and Vann note that the sun’s damage is cumulative, so the effects of looking at an eclipse may not show up until years later and can be temporary, but oftentimes is permanent.
And more bad news: There is no medical or surgical treatment for solar retinopathy — only prevention, Eifrig cautions.
Are there any ways that you are able to safely look at the solar eclipse?
Only eclipse glasses will protect your eyes. Regular or dark sunglasses or even welder’s glasses will not protect your eyes.
Nearly all doctors I interviewed agreed. If you do opt for solar eclipse glasses, make sure to buy ones made with special filters and coating to remove nearly 100 percent of the harmful light. Specifically, you need to look for glasses that meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard. Your best bet is to follow NASA guidelines, because there have been reports of fake glasses that don’t offer the same protection.
Vann says he has concerns with the eclipse glasses, because “it’s nearly impossible for the average consumer to be certain they’re getting the right level of protection to keep their eyes safe, especially with so many counterfeit products flooding the market.”
And think twice before trying to snap something for Instagram. According to Dr. Ravi Menghani, an ophthalmologist at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, don’t use telescopes, cameras or other mobile device cameras that do not have a special filter to view the sun — even with the special sunglasses on. The sun’s harmful rays become concentrated and will cause harm to your eyes.
Another option is to make a simple pinhole camera, Griffin suggests. To do so, punch a very small hole in the middle of one piece of paper. Grab a second piece of paper and place it about two feet from the first piece. Then, during the eclipse, take the piece of paper with the pinhole and hold it above your shoulder to let the sun strike it. An image of the sun will be projected onto the second piece of paper, giving viewers an image of the eclipse, he adds.
Vann says that he will be watching the eclipse on NASA TV.
“My practice will be live-streaming the NASA broadcast in our parking lot, as well as providing the materials for pinhole projection, so that my team — and my patients — can experience the event without damaging our eyes,” he adds.