Solar Eclipse Safety: What Shade Should Your Welding Mask Be?
A total solar eclipse isn’t a once in a lifetime event, but it’s pretty uncommon. It’s even rarer for a total solar eclipse to be lined up perfectly with your part of the world. But if you have a front-row seat for a future eclipse, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll want to watch it.
Solar eclipses are dangerous to look at, especially if your eyes are completely unprotected. Traditional sunglasses and even most specialty darkened lenses don’t offer enough protection, either. That means you have to buy your safety equipment ahead of time. During the lead-up to the 2017 solar eclipse across the United States, stores ran out of specially designed eclipse glasses. Because of the event’s rarity, even wild estimates of inventory ran out at big box stores and eyeglass shops. That meant people eager to not miss out started dropping to less and less sufficient eye protection. This included faulty solar eclipse glasses, unverified solar viewers, and even welding helmets.
If you’re preparing to see the next big solar event in your area, order your safety equipment early. Partial eye protection isn’t enough. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting the right glasses and why it matters so much.
Why is a solar eclipse so bad for your vision?
Staring at the sun is hard on the eyes. Luckily, our eyes tend to pick up on that without our mind’s active input. The corneal reflex, or the blink reflex, makes people’s eyes blink when they’re staring at something too bright. While this doesn’t mean it’s safe to stare at the sun, it does mean your reflexive response to the brightness will kick in before too much damage occurs.
However, a solar eclipse is dim. Once the sun is even partially blocked by the moon, the total sunlight fades and the visible light from the sun is seemingly bearable. If you’re already tempted to look up at the eclipse, the lack of a cue to your corneal reflex might make you feel safer taking a longer look.
Even if it doesn’t hurt or cause immediate discomfort, even a single unprotected glimpse will put your eyes at risk of damage. Just because the visible light’s brightness is lower doesn’t mean the invisible radiation has decreased to safe levels. If you look at the eclipse without the right equipment, your eyes can develop retinopathy, a specific type of eye damage. The radiation can destroy photoreceptors, permanently increase your sensitivity to light, and create blind spots in your eyes. Sometimes the condition is permanent, and sometimes the damage is temporary but lasts up to a year.
While the odds of permanent or severe eye damage are low, eye experts regularly warn that no amount of unprotected sun-watching is safe. The symptoms of vision damage don’t develop until approximately twelve hours after the incident, long after you can do anything to mitigate the risks.
What if you can’t get solar eclipse glasses from a trusted source in time?
The easily available solar eclipse glasses might be gone by the time you start ordering your pair. That doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the event. But it does mean you need to thoroughly research the alternatives you consider buying.
If you find solar eclipse lenses that seem too good to be true at their price or are available in large quantities at the last minute, verify the supplier. 2017 saw numerous incidents of:
- unauthorized glasses that weren’t approved by national or international bodies,
- scratched or improperly maintained gear, and
- people making do with insufficiently shaded eye protection.
If you can’t trust the available supply of solar eclipse glasses, move on to welding masks.
Make sure your welding helmet has the right darkness rating.
The only acceptable darkness rating for looking at a solar eclipse is shade 14. NASA will warn you, every news channel will warn you, and reliable online store reviews will also warn you: low to medium shade ratings are not good enough to protect your eyes. Under some circumstances, welding masks with a shade rating of 12 or 13 may be considered sufficient. However, shade 14 is the darkest shade rating available for welding masks and it is regarded as the most fitting shade rating for solar eclipses.
The filter is so dark you won’t be able to see anything but the area surrounding the sun itself, and it’s built for the most extreme welding environments. Most stores that keep welding equipment on the shelves would have to special order it, so it’s not a quick alternative to niche solar eclipse lenses. Be sure to research your options and order well in advance.
Even with a shade 14 darkness, welding masks don’t allow you to stare at the sun for long. These lenses are safe only when you’re viewing the sun in its totally eclipsed state. A partially eclipsed sun, when a portion of the sun’s surface is still directly viewable to the side, is still too bright for the helmet to protect you. Your eyes might not sense the damage, and the damage might not be immediate, but the protection is still insufficient.
If you want to view the eclipse without worrying that you’re looking up too early or that you’re watching it for too long, you need lenses with solar filters that meet internationally set safety standards.
Make sure the lenses offer full coverage for your eyes.
One key advantage of a welding helmet is comprehensive coverage. The whole surface area of your eyes and the skin near your eyes is protected. This reduces the chance of indirect radiation damaging your eyes or you glancing above the lenses.
If you’re looking at alternatives to a full welding mask, make sure the lenses are wide. They need to not only cover your eyes themselves but enough area to cover your peripheral vision. With that in mind, most experts recommend you look at total solar eclipses only while standing still.
Shade 14 welding masks are a good solution if you’re out of options. But solar sunglasses that were specifically created to protect your eyes while you watch a solar event are better. Go to Phillips Safety Products here to order your pair well in advance of North America’s next total solar eclipse in 2024.