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Why is the solar eclipse bad for eyes?

People across the United States will have the chance to see a total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, the first time the spectacle was viewable from the continental U.S. since 1979. While it may be tempting to brush off warnings about looking up at this eclipse bare-eyed, don’t: The light of an eclipse really can damage your eyes — though warnings of total blindness may be overstated.

The condition is called solar retinopathy, and it occurs when bright light from the sun floods your retina on the back of the eyeball. The retina is home to the light-sensing cells that make vision possible. When they’re over-stimulated by sunlight, they release a flood of communication chemicals that can damage the retina. This damage is often painless, so people don’t realize what they’re doing to their vision.


Editor’s note: The eclipse is here! Remember to use safe solar eclipse glasses and other equipment during the partial phases, and soak up the darkness during totality!

Anyone in the United States on Aug. 21, 2017, will be able to see at least a partial solar eclipse (weather permitting, of course).

Safety recommendations from NASA.

The “lenses” of solar-viewing glasses are made from special-purpose solar filters that are hundreds of thousands of times darker than regular sunglasses, according to Rick Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society (AAS). These glasses are so dark that the face of the sun should be the only thing visible through them, Fienberg said. Solar-viewing glasses can be used to view a solar eclipse or to look for sunspots on the sun’s surface.

But beware! NASA and the AAS recommend that solar-viewing or eclipse glasses meet the current international standard: ISO 12312-2. Some older solar-viewing glasses may meet previous standards for eye protection, but not the new international standard, Fienberg said.