Whether you’re swimming indoors or outdoors, chances are every single swimmer you encounter is wearing a pair of goggles. It’s easy enough to understand that goggles protect your eyes, but they also come with the downside of fogging up or leaking sometimes.
Goggle straps can also dig painfully into your skin, and there may even be a lot of pressure around your eye sockets. These downsides make you wonder if swimming goggles are necessary, or can you forgo them?
While swimming goggles are not strictly necessary, i.e. you can technically swim without them, the protection they offer your eyes is too good to pass up. In addition to the physical protection they offer, goggles also keep bacteria, chlorine, salt, and other contaminants away from your eyes. This ensures you do not get eye pain or an eye infection. As such, swimming goggles are highly recommended and that’s why every swimmer wears one.
In this article, we will discuss the various benefits of wearing swimming goggles so that you can better understand why they are practically mandatory for a swimmer to wear.
Why swimming goggles are a must-have
Human eyes are not intended to be opened underwater
Maybe at some point eons ago, when humans were more fish-like than ape-like, our eyes were better-suited to being opened underwater. Technically, we still can open our eyes underwater, but it’s not comfortable and exposes you to risks like eye damage or infection.
If you try it, you will experience a burning sensation, blurriness, maybe even pain. It is simply too risky and uncomfortable to open our eyes underwater without some eye protection like a pair of goggles or a dive mask.
Goggles add a protective layer between our sensitive eyes and the water outside. It allows us to see more clearly and avoid the burning sensation that salt or chlorinated water can cause. The lenses can also physically protect the eyes from debris in the water such as splinters or sand.
The water you’re swimming in isn’t clean
Have you ever stopped to consider how clean the body of water you’re swimming in is? Even in a controlled environment like a swimming pool, you are exposed to: high concentrations of chlorine and other pool chemicals, leaves, insects, debris, dust, sweat, sunblock, suntan lotion, hair, perfume/cologne, even waste products like urine or fecal matter.
Just the pool chemicals alone are a problem for your eyes. In order for the pool to be sanitary to swim in, large concentrations of chlorine must be added into the pool to keep its pH levels (acidity) at a certain range. It’s not any better opening your eyes in the ocean where there are high concentrations of salt. My eyes are burning up just thinking about it.
Another consideration is bacteria in the pool. Obviously there are a ton of bacteria in the ocean that can cause red eyes or pinkeye. But even in a chlorine-filled swimming pool, the bacteria can take a few hours or even a few days to be completely killed off by chlorine. You are not safe from bacteria just because you’re swimming in a chlorinated pool.
Prevents eye irritation
Since opening your eyes underwater exposes you to all manner of chemicals, waste products, bacteria, and other irritants, then the obvious solution is to not let the water have any contact with your eyes.
That’s where swimming goggles come in. Ideally, the gasket on the goggles should form a tight seal around your eyes to prevent water from seeping in. An ill-fitting pair of goggles will have a weaker seal that allows water to seep in quickly.
Even a well-fitted pair of goggles will eventually fail to keep some water out, but you simply need to clear the goggles and continue swimming. As long as it is infrequent enough that you rarely need to do it, this is normal.
Water that has seeped into the goggles is still kept out of your eyes because there is some space to allow water to pool up without reaching your eyes. As such, even a slightly leaky pair of goggles can fulfill its purpose of keeping water out of your eyes and preventing eye irritation.
Allows glasses wearers to see underwater
On land, most glasses wearers would wear contacts when performing a physical activity. However, if your preferred activity is swimming, then wearing contacts without goggles means that the contacts will simply get washed out.
With swimming goggles, you can do one of the following: wear contacts under a regular pair of goggles, or order prescription swimming goggles where the lenses are corrective lenses. The latter is extremely expensive, so most people would resort to the former.
Optometrists recommend you don’t wear contacts underwater even with goggles. When dirty water reaches your contact lenses, the bacteria can linger on the lenses, which are pressed right up against your eyes, for much longer than they normally would if you didn’t wear lenses. This increases your risk of eye infection.
There is also the practical problem of water simply washing your contacts right out of your eyes, and now you have blurry vision. Depending on where this occurs, e.g. during open water swimming, this can be a legitimate life-threatening situation.
People wear contacts with their swimming goggles anyways since most people just swim at the pool, and my advice is: don’t let water touch your contacts, and if it does, replace the contacts with new ones. Always throw out your contacts if dirty water touches it. Don’t try to decontaminate it, the bacteria is not going to be rinsed off with contact solution.
On a bright and sunny day, it can be a pain in the butt, I mean eyes, trying to swim with the sun’s reflection off of the surface of the water. Whether you’re staring in the direction of the sun or getting an eyeful of reflected light from the surface of the water, the glare is literally blinding.
There are a couple of lens designs that can shield your eyes from the glare. You can get either mirrored swimming goggles or polarized swimming goggles.
Mirrored lenses are superior on brighter days because they help reduce brightness by reflecting light away from your eyes. However, on overcast days or at dimly lit areas, the mirrored lenses can make your view overly dark because it is still reflecting light away from your eyes.
Polarized lenses work by filtering glare, and they do not block as much light on brighter days compared to mirrored lenses. However, on overcast or darker days, they will not cause you to see an overly-dark view.
General improved visibility
If the glare protection is not enough, swimming goggles generally provide improved visibility for both indoor and outdoor swimming.
Since your eyes are not being irritated by water, you can open them wider and for longer. You also won’t finish a swimming session with bloodshot eyes or irritation that lasts for hours.
When outdoors, if you accidentally kick up some silt, you can keep your eyes open because the goggles are keeping the particulates from getting into your eyes.
To be clear, I am not saying that goggles can somehow improve the condition of a low-viz body of water, but it can technically improve your visibility since you don’t need to squint or worry about particulates getting in your eyes.
Improve your child’s confidence
When you are first introducing your child to swimming, you want them to have a great first experience. If your child tried opening her eyes underwater only to feel irritation or pain, she may be discouraged and not want to go into the water again.
By protecting your child’s eyes with goggles, she can swim freely without worrying about eye problems. This can be a big confidence booster that helps her learn new skills until she eventually learns how to swim without goggles.
Don’t be dependent on goggles
Even though the point of this article is to sing the swimming goggles’ praises, I want to leave you with a warning: don’t be overly reliant on goggles.
Yes, goggles can provide all of the benefits outlined above. That said, if you become too reliant on them, you may find that when they unexpectedly slip off your face you can panic because you haven’t tried swimming without goggles before.
As part of your swimming lessons, swim instructors will intentionally ask students to swim without goggles on to get used to it. Students must be able to perform basic safety skills like floating on their back, treading water, or swimming with their head above water so that they can still stay afloat even if their goggles have been knocked off.
In emergency situations where you don’t have your goggles with you, you can even open your eyes underwater to get a better view of what’s going on. After all, what are the chances you are always walking around while carrying goggles in your everyday life? By prepping for realistic emergency situations, you or your child can stay calm, spring into action, and survive.