You’re staring at a screen right now. And chances are, you don’t know the #1 thing you can do to protect your eyes while doing so.
That’s why we wrote this. The health of your eyes might seem beyond your control, a whim of genetics (and whether we managed to not look directly into the sun as a kid).
The truth is that the power is within your sights—diet, lifestyle choices and good eye hygiene have a lot to do with preserving vision as we age. We asked top eye experts about the unexpected ways we might be damaging our vision every day. Here’s what they said you should focus on.
You’re Getting Too Much Sun
“Regardless of where we live or the time of year, sun overexposure is an ever-present danger to our eye health,” says Trevor Elmquist, DO, a board-certified ophthalmologist and founder of Elmquist Eye Group in Florida. “We all know about the importance of sunscreen, but many don’t consider the harmful effects of UV rays on our eyes.”
Recommendation: “Make an effort to wear wide-brimmed hats, UV-blocking contact lenses and close-fitting, UV-blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes and prevent long-term damage,” says Elmquist. When shopping for sunglasses, check the label, and only buy shades that block 99 percent of both UVA and UVB radiation.
You’re Not Eating An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
“Diet plays a surprising role in vision health, both helping and harming,” says Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet. “Refined and processed foods have inflammatory effects in the body, including the eyes. Chronic inflammation can be damaging to the eyes and cause poor vision.”
Recommendation: Ground your diet in lean protein, healthy fats and the full color spectrum of fruits and vegetables. “We should seek to ‘eat the rainbow’ for more than just our general wellness, but our eye health as well,” says Richards. “Fruits and vegetables, along with lean meats, fatty fish, whole grains and low-fat dairy provide the eyes with support they need to prevent damage.”
“It’s true that carrots are good for your eyes,” adds Elmquist. “A diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables, especially dark, leafy greens as well as fish high in omega 3-fatty acids can help protect your vision.”
You’re Not Following the 20-20-20 Rule
Several eye doctors told us that if you stare at your phone or a computer screen all day, practice 20-20-20 to reduce eye strain: “Every 20 minutes, look away from screens and focus about 20 feet in front of you for 20 seconds,” explains Elmquist. And don’t forget to blink. “Blinking regularly is also critical for cleansing and lubricating the surface of the eye,” he says. “Studies show that we tend to blink less when using a digital device, and the smaller the screen, the less we blink.”
Recommendation: You might need to remember to make blinking a routine. “Each time you get up to use the restroom or go to a meeting, try to do five complete blinks to remoisten your eyes,” suggests Charissa Lee, OD, an optometrist and director of education at Johnson & Johnson Vision. “Complete blinking is important to activate your oil glands in your lids and to spread these beneficial oils—and your protective tear film layer—across your eyes.”
You’re Giving Yourself Dry Eye Syndrome (DES)
“We unknowingly ruin our vision when we create a lifestyle that speeds up the aging process,” says Kellie Blake, RDN, LD, IFNCP, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in West Virginia. Oxidative stress—the process of cell damage that antioxidants prevent—can increase as the body ages, she explains. “If our lifestyle speeds up this process, the delicate tissues of the eye are susceptible to damage, and diseases like dry eye syndrome (DES) can result. DES can cause vision loss if root causes are not addressed, like an inadequate vitamin D level, a nutrient-poor diet, autoimmune disease, medication use and inflammatory skin conditions.”
Recommendation: “We can slow down the aging of our cells and protect our eyes by creating a lifestyle that keeps our mitochondria healthy,” says Blake. “Following a plant-based, nutrient-rich diet is critical, but we must also obtain restful sleep, practice mindful movement, and manage stress in a healthy way.”
You’re Not Wearing Goggles When Swimming
You don’t want to open your eyes too much in the pool. Really. “Human eyes are not intended to function properly under water, hence the blurriness when trying to see there,” says Richard Foulkes, MD, an ophthalmologist and founder of Foulkes Vision in Chicago. “Think about everything that goes into a pool: Chemicals like chlorine, sunblock, sweat, dust, urine can all come into contact with your eyes. Believe it or not, saltwater is actually safer on your eyes than chlorine. If you wear contacts, contamination can be absorbed onto a contact lens, and keeping the lens on the cornea can lead to infections. Any debris can also get caught under the contact lens, causing corneal ulcers or corneal lacerations.”
Recommendation: “Always wear good-fitting goggles when you swim,” says Foulkes. And make sure they’re snug. “If they don’t fit properly, water can leak into the goggles, causing irritation and even leading to infection.”
You’re Stressing Out
If you’re constantly tearing your hair out, your eyes will pay for it. “Unmanaged chronic mental stress takes a physical toll on the body and can be problematic for the ocular system,” says Jeanette Kimszal, RDN, NLC, a registered dietitian based in New Jersey. “According to research, chronic stress that cause surges of the stress hormone cortisol can negatively impact the nervous system. When the nervous system isn’t functioning properly, it can affect our brain and eyes, resulting in problems with vision.”
Cortisol also tells the body to hang onto fat, particularly around your midsection. And it’s sneaky. Adds Kimszal: “The biggest problem with stress is that someone may not feel they are under stress, but their body could still be pumping out cortisol. This constant stressed state can also deplete the body of needed nutrients.”
Recommendation: Fight stress with exercise, spending time with loved ones, and relaxation techniques such as meditation and mindfulness. Diet can help: “Vitamins C and E, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids are needed to maintain healthy vision,” says Kimszal.
You’re Rubbing Your Eyes
Your mom was right: Your face really could freeze that way. “Rubbing your eyes too frequently can cause microvascular damage to the small blood vessels under the skin,” says Anthony Kouri, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center. “This leads to dark circles and puffiness. Rubbing your eyes also causes premature aging to the skin around the eyes, including wrinkles and drooping eyelids.”
Recommendation: Hands off! “Avoid rubbing this area to maintain your youthful look,” says Kouri.
Smoke getting in your eyes might have inspired a pretty ballad, but in reality, there’s nothing romantic about it. “Smoking creates oxidative stress on tissues throughout the body. In the eyes, the areas most prone to this are the macula [an area in the center of the retina] and the lens,” says Wang. “The formation of free radicals may contribute to the development of macular degeneration and cataracts, which have been shown to occur more commonly and at an earlier age in those who smoke. Externally, the smoke is an irritant on the delicate structures of the cornea and conjunctiva, which can lead to chronic dry and red eyes.”
Recommendation: If you haven’t stopped smoking, what more are you waiting for? See your doctor if you’re having trouble quitting; nicotine patches and gums can help.
You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
“If we aren’t getting enough sleep at night, it can accelerate the aging process,” says Kouri. “This can lead to bloodshot eyes, dark circles, eye twitching (known as myokymia) and blurry vision. Over long periods of time with inadequate rest, we can experience popped blood vessels due to eye strain. Additionally, we may experience dry eyes which can cause pain, itchiness, and sensitivity to light.”
Recommendation: Experts including the National Sleep Foundation say that adults of all ages should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. That won’t just help preserve your vision—it’s been shown to lower the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and depression.
You’re Not Getting An Annual Eye Exam
It’s a common misconception that you should only see an eye doctor when you notice there’s a problem with your vision. “Even though you may think you see fine, it’s important to book an appointment with your eye doctor annually,” says Lee. “When you go in, they’ll make sure to check all aspects of your eye health, including how healthy the front and back of your eyes are. This can help identify potential issues such as Meibomian gland dysfunction—otherwise known as dry eye—early signs of glaucoma, or even things as serious as a melanoma.”
You Have Untreated Myopia (Nearsightedness)
Nearsightedness may seem like a harmless consequence of aging, but “if it goes untreated, it can cause irreversible vision impairment and blindness,” says Lee. Genetics can raise your risk, along with lifestyle factors like doing too much near work (reading, writing or screen time) and spending a limited time outdoors.
Recommendation: “The Environmental Protection Agency reports Americans, on average, spend 90% of their time indoors, so make a conscious effort to spend more time outdoors, especially while the weather is nice,” says Lee.
You Have Poor Hygiene
Keeping your hands and eyes clean is the easiest thing you can do to maintain eye health. “Poor hygiene can increase your risk of eye health issues like infection,” says Lee.
Recommendation: “To lessen this risk you should wash your hands often to lessen the risk of bacteria being transferred to your eyes if you tend to rub them,” says Lee. “If you’re a contact lens wearer, make sure you’re swapping out your case every two to three months, and use solutions made for your contact lenses specifically. Also, do not wear contact lenses in the shower or while swimming.”
You’re Using Expired Makeup
“Because makeup can come in contact with your eyes, applying expired makeup products means giving an easy passage to bacteria and other infections,” says Christine Joy, OD, an optometrist and VSP Network doctor in New York City.
Recommendation: “As a rule, you should replace your eye makeup every three months to reduce risk of infection,” says Joy. “Also, make it a practice to remove makeup every night, and never share your makeup.”
You’re Using Contact Lenses Wrong
“Not disposing of contacts within the recommended time frame and sleeping in contact lenses increases the risk of bacterial infection and inflammation in the eyes,” says Joy. “Wearing contacts too long during the day can decrease the amount of oxygen to the eye and cause dry eyes or irritation. Swimming or showering in contact lenses is also a big no-no. You can put yourself at risk for a dangerous, sight threatening infection called Acanthamoeba, a type of amoeba that lives in the water, which can get trapped under contact lenses.”
Recommendation: “It is highly recommended to remove contact lenses while swimming, showering or taking a nap,” advises Joy. “Make sure to dispose your contacts regularly and give your eyes a break with glasses when you’re able to.”
You’re Not Exercising
“Your eyes benefit from exercise just as much as the rest of your body. High blood pressure and diabetes can be caused by a sedentary lifestyle,” says Joy. Both can contribute to vision problems. “Regular exercise not only helps to prevent these diseases, but also reduces your chances of developing glaucoma. Much like our brain, our eyes need oxygen to maintain an optimal level of performance.”
Recommendation: “Exercising regularly, even a light walk, is a great way to keep your eyes sharp.”
You’re Not Wearing Safety Goggles
Forty-five percent of eye injuries occur at home, “often due to inadequate eye protection,” says Kouri. “Household hazards include chemicals from cleaning or pool supplies, home improvement projects or hot grease from cooking.”
Recommendation: Better to be safe than (really, really) sorry. “If you’re doing a home improvement project or cleaning around the house, it’s best to wear protective eye gear,” says Kouri.
You’re Drinking Too Much
Turns out the expression “blind drunk” isn’t just a turn of phrase. “Heavy drinking can have adverse effects on your eyesight by aggravating and intensifying symptoms of dry eye,” says Joy. “These symptoms may include stinging or burning sensations in your eyes, sensitivity to light, redness, discomfort when wearing contact lenses and eye fatigue.”
Recommendation: Experts say men should limit themselves to two drinks a day, and women should stop at one. Not just for your vision, but to cut your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
You’re Addicted to Screens
“Use of digital devices and cell phones can contribute to significant eye strain,” says Ming Wang, MD, PhD, an eye surgeon and founder of the Wang Vision Institute in Nashville, Tennessee. “The strain of focusing for close activities can cause the eyes in some people to lock into near focus, which can cause distance vision to be blurry temporarily. Over time, it may lead to the development of more nearsightedness as the eyes adjust to close focus. This is believed to be part of what is causing rise to the development of more high amounts of near-sightedness among young children in technology-heavy countries like China, Japan, Korea and the United States.”
Recommendation: Follow that 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes take a 20 second break and look 20 feet away.
You’re Not Drinking Enough Water
“It’s important to keep the eyes hydrated,” says Wang. “The surface of the eye is the first surface that light hits before it makes it to the back of the eye, providing vision. When the surface isn’t hydrated, it can cause someone’s vision to be very blurry temporarily. Over time, a poorly hydrated surface can form cracks and actually lead to minor scar tissue development, which can cause more permanent blurred vision.”
Recommendation: “A healthy diet, drinking lots of water, and taking breaks when doing reading work are ways to keep the eyes hydrated naturally,” says Wang. “If those are not enough, then the use of over-the-counter artificial tears daily two to six times daily can be helpful. If this does not provide adequate relief, seeing an eye doctor is recommended.”
You’re Not Taking Off Your Makeup At Night
“For those who wear it, not removing makeup opens the eyes to risk,” says Wang. “Bacteria and parasites can grow in the areas along the eyelids and eyelashes. These organisms then secrete toxins which can fall into the eye and contribute to irritation, redness, and itching. Over time, they can cause permanent damage to the structures that secrete tear components (the meibomian glands) leading to chronic dry eye.”
Recommendation: Be sure to remove your makeup each night. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these essential 50 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.