Solar Eclipse Eye Safety: How to Protect Your Eyes When Viewing Nature's Wonder

Here's what to know about solar retinopathy and why using proper vision protection is important.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Reporter
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health technology, eye care, nutrition and finding new approaches to chronic health problems. When she's not reporting on health facts, she makes things up in screenplays and short fiction.
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Jessica Rendall
4 min read
Three women wearing solar eclipse glasses looking up at the sky
Leo Patrizi/Getty Images

Whether you've traveled to see it or you're one of the lucky ones living in the total solar eclipse's path, protecting your vision is important if you'll be looking up to the sky Monday. 

A total solar eclipse happens when the moon momentarily blocks the sun's face, resulting in a cool and arguably eerie darkness. It's the same type of eclipse that happened in 2017; last year's was only an annular eclipse

Whether you're in the path of totality or catching part of the eclipse, it's important you know the safety guidance and find the right eye protection. Aside from the very short moment of darkness that is the total solar eclipse, the sun will be partially eclipsed on Monday, making special eclipse glasses crucial if you plan to be outside or viewing the sky in any way. 

Dr. Ronald Benner, president of the American Optometric Association, told us in October that unsafe viewing of a solar eclipse can cause solar retinopathy, which is a type of retinal damage he compared to sunburn on the "satellite dish of the eye." Failing to wear proper eye protection will let in a dangerous amount of ultraviolet radiation and damage the macular tissue in the retina. 

"Once it's burned and scarred, it's a bad thing," Benner said. 

Read more: Last Solar Eclipse for 20 Years Is Coming: Here's How to Watch It 

A map of the total solar eclipse

NASA's map shows the lucky strip of the US that will be within the viewing area of the total solar eclipse this April 8. 

NASA; screenshot by CNET

How to find eclipse glasses last minute 

Unfortunately, sunglasses aren't going to cut it. Proper solar viewers or eclipse glasses are thousands of times darker than sunglasses, according to NASA.

Both the American Optometric Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology say to look for glasses that have been given the OK by the American Astronomical Society. The AAS includes glasses that meet the ISO 12312-2 standard. Importantly, counterfeit glasses or those that don't meet safety standards can also claim this or use it as a logo -- so make sure you verify your glasses before the big event. (The AAS notes that if you have glasses from a vendor not listed, it doesn't mean that they're unsafe by default, they're simply not vetted.) 

Some brick-and-mortar stores sell glasses in-store that meet safety standards, the AAS says. So if you need a pair last-minute, it's worth swinging by one of these stores to see what they have in stock: 

  • Walmart 
  • Lowe's
  • Cracker Barrel 
  • Wegmans
  • Bucc-ee's 
  • Meijer 
  • H-E-B
  • Menards 
  • Staples
  • Kroger
  • 7-Eleven

According to information from Warby Parker provided to CNET Sunday evening, the free eclipse glasses Warby Parker was giving away are out of stock at all locations. 

In addition to glasses, you can use a pinhole eclipse projector to view the eclipse. 

Read more: Want to Take Photos of the Total Solar Eclipse? Here's What to Know 

Total Solar Eclipse 2024: The Best Photos We've Seen

See all photos

Make sure to check your eclipse glasses

Even if you've done all the right things by referencing the AAS website to find the right glasses or viewers, it's a good idea to give them a test run before the main event. 

You can do this by putting your glasses on and wearing them around other sources of light, like street lights or car lights. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, you shouldn't be able to see any light in your eclipse glasses, besides the sun or sunlight reflected in a mirror. If light comes through, Benner said, "they're not good." 

For more, follow these tips to see whether your glasses are fake or the real deal

A person in a yellow fuzzy sweatshirt wearing solar eclipse glasses outside
LeoPatrizi/Getty Images

Solar retinopathy: What happens to your eyes if you look at a solar eclipse

For folks who will be in the path of totality, there is a "brief and spectacular" period of time when it's safe to look at the sky without glasses, according to NASA, but it's crucial to keep them on during the other phases of the eclipse while the sun is still partly visible. According to the National Park Service, the total block lasts only for about 2 to 4 minutes, depending on where you are in the path of totality. 

And for people viewing a partial eclipse outside the path of totality, there's never a safe time to view the eclipse without glasses. If the sun is out, even just a sliver, don't look at it without glasses

Put simply, solar retinopathy is damage to the retina, and you run that risk by exposing your eyes to the sun. Benner said the damage usually takes about six to 12 hours to show up. Common symptoms include blurry vision, blind spots, distorted color vision or otherwise warped vision. 

If you notice these symptoms, you should see a doctor right away to pinpoint the source of your vision problems. Many patients will regain normal vision acuity within a few months, though it may be random. Benner added that recovery may take up to six months or a year, and that sometimes people don't fully recover and their vision acuity is affected from then on.

Is there anyone who might be more susceptible to solar retinopathy? No, Benner said.

"Every individual is a unique individual," Benner said, but no one's immune to damage when it comes to the delicate parts of the eye. In other words, don't think you'll be safe to steal a peak because you don't sunburn often.

"When it comes to the retinal tissue, it's so much different," he explained.

There's also no specific amount of time that you can look at the sun before you're at risk of retinal damage. According to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, even a few seconds can cause permanent harm. 

For parents of younger kids, Benner has an extra word of caution: Watch them closely with their glasses, or just keep them in the house to watch it on TV. Us adults know better than to risk looking at the sun, but children may not. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.