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Will Swimming Without Goggles Cause Eye Damage?

Will Swimming Without Goggles Cause Eye Damage?

Heading for a swim workout without goggles or any kind of protection for your eyes is tempting, because as we all learned early on, a human being can keep his eyes open underwater - when we were kids, we thought for a moment we were Aquaman. It seems like it might hurt a lot more, or blind you even, but just because we can get away with it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for long-term adoption. We left the ocean as a species a long time ago, and any protective adaptation we didn’t need any more was eventually shed. Some other mammals got eyes made for being open underwater, but the humans didn’t. So goggles are, for the serious swimmer, a simple question of re-adaptation to time in the water or a swimming pool. Yes, Michael Phelps trained without goggles, but that was only for the off chance that he lost them during a match - like he did in Beijing. The idea was still “keep the goggles on if you can.” (Children should always learn to swim both with and without goggles as well.) 

Swim goggles debuted in the early 1970’s. British swimmer David Wiklie, sufferer of a chlorine allergy, had them mocked up to help him alleviate the issue. The idea was the same as now: two orbs of clear plastic with malleable rubber or silicone rims fastened fairly tightly to the swimmer’s head with a band of rubber, forming a tight seal. By 1976, they were formally allowed in competition at the Montreal Olympics. 


Remember, it’s harder for a human with his eyes open (and no goggles) to see when he or she is underwater. Light bends not once but twice under the surface. Normally, we have light passing through our cornea which is then refocused on our lenses and retinas, and then passed on to the optic nerve and the brain’s visual center. This usually happens this way because the air the light in traveling through is thinner than what it will encounter inside your eyes - however, water in a pool has a similar density to what’s inside your eyes, and so the balance is thrown off. The very fact that our eyes don’t see that well underwater is in fact nature telling us we need to adapt under these circumstances to perform as well as the animals that normally live there. We get scattered light and blurry views, as well as issues with stereoscopic acuity, which can make distances harder to judge when we’re submerged. Normal contrasts aren’t there underwater, usually leading to the overestimation of depth perception. For pro or competitive swimmers, depth perception is utterly important to executing flip-turns under pressure.  Good goggles help with this, making your eye more like an ideal organ for underwater use. (This is even a bigger issue for swimmers in open water, where swimming goggles take care of the dangers of dealing with surface glare from the sun; on the other hand, for inexperienced or beginning swimmers, goggles can lend the confidence to open their eyes underwater.)  


The most important thing you get from wearing goggles is clearer vision underwater, right off the bat. Swimming technique demands that you can see as well as an underwater denizen might naturally, and better vision means less crashing into other people or pool walls. Swimming goggles correct the refraction of light that happens underwater. Your eyes are delicate, and less corneal abrasions you rack up during your swim the better - so say we all.


Everyone who has ever spent time in a public pool or in a pool with improper pH balance knows the move: you curl up your finger and dig your knuckle into your eye, jamming those precious orbs back into your head to get that gross feeling off of them. (For the record, rinsing, using artificial tears, or a cold compress will work better than that knuckle which has of course also been in that chlorinated water with you.)

If the pool has a too-high pH level, the chlorine isn’t disinfecting properly and those eyes are getting hit by impurities in the water. With too-low pH, the pipes surrounding the pool can begin to corrode, sloughing off more irritants into the pool and onto your open, submerged eyeballs.  One study showed that, of fifty people who swam in a pool without goggles, nearly 70% had symptoms of corneal edema, and almost 95% had degradation to some level in the covering of their cornea compared to their eye health before they got in the water. Another study conducted in Italy found, to some shock, that even exposure to the air around a pool was enough to set the eyeballs itching, a fact that many pool lifeguards can attest to. And let’s not forgot our old friend conjunctivitis, aka ‘pink eye’ - yet another study, this one in 2017, proved that half of the respondents who claimed to have had swimming pool issues blamed chlorine when in fact they had been trading adenovirus back-and-forth while frolicking in the blue. 


Of course, a good pair of properly maintained swimming  goggles will keep your eyes - one of your body’s most sensitive organs - free from common pool irritants that can have both short- and long-term repercussions on your eye health. Chlorine can make your eyes itchy, red, and gross after a swim, and public pools can include more irritants like hydrochloric acid, sodium bisulfate, carbon dioxide, sulfuric acid, and sodium carbonate. And those are just from the chemicals column! For those who insist on swimming without goggles, we’ll add that pools can also contain bugs, feces, hair, lotion, perfume, sticks, salt, dirt, leaves - your precious eyes deserve better. Worse,  the exposure you get to the sun without UV-fighting goggles can mean bad news for your eyes - that means cataracts and macular degeneration. 

Life is unpredictable, and you never know when you’re in for a dip into a swimming pool. Swimming or playing or lazing in a pool a few times here and there without eye-protecting goggles won’t have long-term effects - just lay off those eyeballs with those knuckles. It’s good to learn early on how to swim without goggles, because inevitably goggles fall off or are forgotten in hotel rooms. But for serious swimmers and those who get their ultimate refreshment and replenishment from a swim workout, a pair of well-maintained, UV-resistant swim goggles equals a trusty companion that improves the whole endeavor. And there are plenty of different types of goggles for the serious swimmer that you can consider:

  • Goggles with increased peripheral vision, which help serious swimmers attain maximum visibility.
  • Goggles with softer eye-seals, so that the swimmer’s skin doesn’t get irritated by wearing the goggles for extended periods. 
  • Goggles with either single or dual straps, depending on the individual swimmer’s head’s tendency to become irritated by the single strap.
  • Prescription goggles, if you wear glasses on contacts on land, or to correct underwater vision issues. 
  • And for the kiddos or the otherwise picky, let’s not forget specially designed swim goggles that won’t pull or tangle hair. 
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