At some point in our childhoods, we were all warned that reading in poor light would ruin our eyes. Later on when many of us got glasses, we even felt guilty about the time we spent under the covers reading bedtime stories by flashlight. But was poor reading light really the cause of our vision loss?
Despite all the eye strain and headaches we may have endured, the answer is no. Contrary to popular belief, reading in low light does not ruin eyesight. Most eyes worsen simply as an effect of aging. However, while doctors agree that there is no evidence of poor reading light being detrimental to vision, good reading light can reduce uncomfortable short-term effects as well as make reading more enjoyable. The guidelines below will help you choose the best reading light for your eyes.
Perhaps the most important choice to make when choosing a reading light is the kind of fixture you should use. Is overhead lighting, or reading next to a window, enough? Or would a more concentrated light be preferable? Here’s what we recommend.
While reading in dim light will have no long-term effects on your vision, it does place an uncomfortable strain on your eye muscles. Your visual muscles will want to relax to collect the most light, but at the same time they will try to contract to keep the words on the page focused on the retina. Therefore, to reduce the conflict in your eye muscles when you’re completing a high-concentration task such as reading, it’s important to focus bright light directly where it is needed. We recommend using a desk lamp. Desk lamps are small lamps that can swivel and be raised or lowered to help direct the light. But while desk lamps are best due to their multi-directional capabilities, a table lamp with a lampshade that directs light downward (rather than out into the room) would also be a suitable option.
Just as it’s important to have a desk or table lamp concentrating light onto your book, it’s also important to couple this with comfortable, evenly distributed lighting throughout your room. A common mistake people make when choosing light for reading is turning on a bright lamp in a dark room. Your pupils dilate from the dark when they wander off the page, which can make your eyes easily become fatigued – a reason many of us quickly become tired when reading in bed at night. It’s also helpful to avoid reading by light that reflects a lot of bright glare, such as from a computer screen. The constant shifting of pixels from reading off a computer or any screen with glare can put a lot of strain on your eyes. Doctors term this Computer Vision Syndrome. Avoid reading from a computer whenever possible during your leisure time, or at least dim down your screen to lessen the glare. Reversing the color scheme, such as white text on a black background, also mitigates eye strain. (The Kindle app for computers and mobile devices does this really well.)
Since eyes vary with age, it makes sense that as your eyes get older, you will need more light to read by. Dr. Eleanor Faye, the ophthalmological director of the Lighthouse for the Blind Low Vision Service, says: ”The eye’s need for more light to read by increases 1 percent a year. When you’re 10, you can read by 40 watts or hardly any light. By the time you’re 60, you need around 100 watts.” As brightness is measured in lumens, the following will help you choose a bulb with the wattage (or equivalent wattage) that you need.
- 40 watts: Look for at least 450 lumens
- 60 watts: Look for at least 800 lumens
- 75 watts: Look for at least 1,100 lumens
- 100 watts: Look for at least 1,600 lumens
That being said, keep in mind that too much light or glare can be just as bad as too little light. Dr. Faye says, ”When light glares from highly reflective surfaces, it’s fatiguing and especially disturbing for older people with cataracts and retina problems.” So if bright light gives you grief, use a shaded lamp rather than a desk lamp to cut glare and moderate light. Light in a warmer color temperature will also be easier on your eyes than in a cooler color temperature. But all in all, when considering the right light for your eyes, remember: your eyes will tell you what they want. If the light isn’t comfortable, they will show signs of fatigue, like burning, redness, brow-ache, headache, or squinting.