I remember in my childhood being told by my parents that swimming goggles could put too much pressure around my eyes and cause permanent damage.
They forbade me from ever diving with goggles on because the goggles could damage my eyes on impact. Not that I ever did, because I saw what happened to the other kids who tried. Diving underwater? Out of the question.
As I got a bit older, I started to hear even crazier things – that some goggles could create such a strong vacuum that it could suck your eyeballs out. Many parents would see the red marks around their child’s eyes and use that as proof that swimming goggles were dangerous.
I heard all kinds of exaggerated stories over the years, at one point even believed some of them, but I know better now. To be fair, there was some truth to these stories, but the chances of them happening to somebody with common sense is so unlikely that it’s a non-issue.
Are swimming goggles dangerous? They are if you try to go diving with them – whether it’s from a diving board or by diving deeper underwater. If your goggles are causing you eye pain, you need to find one with a gasket that covers a larger surface area to alleviate the pressure, and also to adjust the straps for a more comfortable yet snug fit. In general, goggles provide more safety benefits than health risks, making them a must-have for swimmers.
Keep reading on to learn more about the potential risks swimming goggles pose, why they are generally a non-issue, and why you should protect your eyes by wearing goggles or a dive mask when swimming.
Swimming goggles and intraocular pressure
When swimming goggles put too much pressure around your eyes, they also increase the intraocular pressure (the fluid pressure within your eyes) which can cause blood vessels to burst or the retinas to detach.
To make things easier to understand, imagine your eyes as water balloons. If you apply outside pressure, such as by squeezing it, it also increases the internal pressure and makes the balloon more likely to burst. Tight swimming goggles put pressure on the outside of your eyes which also affect the pressure inside.
As this “water balloon” is squeezed due to actions that increase IOP, you can damage the optic nerve and cause permanent vision loss.
In general, you do not want to mess with the fluid equilibrium in your eye. However, many actions that we do on a day to day basis naturally increase IOP.
For instance, if you pinch your nose and try to exhale through it, a common technique used to clear your ears, this can very briefly spike the IOP. If you hold your breath while exerting your muscles, as is common for weightlifters, this also increases IOP.
Thankfully, brief increases in IOP do not seem to cause permanent damage as long as they still within the safe range, otherwise many weightlifters would be going blind.
Can swimming goggles cause your eyes to pop out?
This is a legitimate concern and can potentially happen, but only under specific circumstances. The first circumstance is if your eyes already have high IOP at baseline. Wearing goggles in this situation would increase the pressure even more, possibly beyond the safe range.
The next circumstance is diving off of a tall dive board while wearing goggles. The impact of hitting the water with goggles on can cause them to press against your eyes extremely hard, spiking up the IOP to dangerously high levels, and your eyes may feel very strained afterwards.
Another dangerous circumstance is diving even 10-20 feet underwater. As you dive underwater, the water pressure increases by one atmosphere for every 10 m of depth. So at a depth of 10 feet, there is 1.33 times the pressure being exerted on you compared to the surface, at 20 feet there is 1.67 times the pressure, and so on. At 30 feet, there is two times the pressure compared to the surface.
If you thought that a pair of swimming goggles were already uncomfortably suctioned around your eyes, imagine 1.33 to 2 times that pressure and you can start to imagine how that can seriously hurt you.
What’s happening is that the water pressure is causing the air trapped in the airspace inside the goggles to decrease in volume. There is already not much air inside the goggles in the first place, so any reduction in its volume can quickly feel like your eyeballs are being vacuumed out.
Freedivers and scuba divers wear something called dive masks to avoid this problem. Unlike swimming goggles, dive masks cover not just the eyes but the nose as well.
This allows divers to exhale some air from their nose into the mask, decreasing the pressure in the air space by adding in some air. Swimming goggles notably lack a nose pocket so you cannot decrease the pressure around your eyes when diving with one.
All of this is just a long-winded way of saying – don’t dive with goggles on, whether it’s from a diving board or just diving 10-20 feet underwater. Swimming goggles are not designed for you to dive with and it is extremely dangerous to do so. Dive masks, on the other hand, are designed for that purpose.
How much intraocular pressure do goggles add?
The situations described above only deal with improper or risky use of the goggles. What about normal use, i.e. swimming only along the surface of the water? Would wearing swimming goggles normally elevate IOP to dangerous levels?
Let’s compare how much pressure goggles add compared to other daily activities. For some context, mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) is the unit of measurement for pressure, and normal IOP ranges from 12-21 mm Hg, with IOP exceeding 21 mm Hg being higher than normal. Most people tend to be on the lower end of this range.
In this study by Ma et al, they listed the following as examples: playing the trumpet elevated IOP by 20 mm Hg, holding the Sirsasana pose in yoga elevated IOP by 15.8, and wearing a necktie caused an increase in IOP by 1.58 mm Hg. For reference, wearing swimming goggles on average added only 2.4 mm Hg in IOP, but this was measured immediately after the goggles were put on.
Interestingly, it was found that the IOP increased slightly over time to add another 0.5 mm Hg of pressure, suggesting that sustained wear results in greater IOP. It also does not factor in the effect of external pressure, such as water pressure experienced when diving deeper, or from an impact diving from a great height, or someone just hitting your face by accident.
It was also found that a smaller goggle size was the greatest contributor to an increased IOP. This is because a smaller goggle places a lot of pressure on a small area around your eyes, whereas a larger pair of goggles would spread the pressure over a larger surface area, thereby reducing the IOP.
As you can see, even after factoring in the increased IOP caused by wearing swimming goggles for a long period of time (60 minutes), for someone within the normal range of baseline IOP, it does not increase the pressure enough to be abnormal unless you already were on the higher end in the first place.
The pressure increase of wearing swimming goggles is barely worse than putting on a necktie, and you would do that without a second thought, so you can feel the same about wearing swimming goggles in the appropriate context.
As an aside, any concerns with regards to swimming goggles causing a detached or torn retina are also put to rest based on these findings. They simply do not add enough IOP to be of issue unless your baseline IOP was high in the first place.
Red skin around eyes after removing goggles
Whenever you or your child takes off a pair of goggles, do you notice red marks where the goggles were touching? That may simply be contact pressure that will dissipate on its own within minutes or an hour, with no lasting effects.
Naturally, the severity of this problem depends on how long you wore the goggles for and how tight they are. You are in control of how tight the straps are, so adjust as necessary. The goggles should fit snug without digging into your skin.
A problem that some people have is they try wearing a pair of goggles that don’t suit their face shape. They may experience water leaks due to a small gap or opening, so they over-tighten the straps until the goggles are literally digging into their skin to compensate. The solution here is to find a pair of goggles that suit your face shape.
A bigger issue is if the redness around your eyes is caused by an allergic reaction between your skin and the rubber, plastic, or other material that the goggles are made of. If you have a known allergy, check the packaging on your goggles to see if it is made from a possible allergen.
Cheap goggles breaking and snapping back
Sometimes kids can get injured in the craziest ways, and a mother in Australia found this out the hard way when her son tried to put on a pair of goggles, only to be left oozing blood from his head.
She recounted that when her son was trying to pull the goggle strap over his head, the goggles suddenly split down the middle from the nose piece, and the energy stored in the stretched strap pulled the sharp plastic pieces right onto his head.
The cut sustained was small but deep, and since any cuts that occur to the head bleeds quite profusely, it was like a scene from a horror movie. Thankfully for the mom and son, the injury ended up being relatively minor. It could have been a different story if the goggles had slashed his eye.
Personally, nothing like this ever occurred to me but I can see the potential for it to happen if one’s goggles are low-quality. It is something to keep in mind and a cautionary tale to get a higher quality pair of goggles.
Goggles fogging up and obscuring vision
Another issue some swimmers face is their goggles fogging up after a few minutes. This can occur when the anti-fog coating that came with the goggles has deteriorated over time.
When goggles fog up in the swimming pool, it is nothing more than an annoyance. Where it can become dangerous is if you’re open water swimming or generally swimming outdoors.
With the lenses fogged over, it can be difficult to see where you’re going and can be a legitimate safety concern when swimming outdoors. It is also more likely to fog up outdoors due to the drastic difference in temperature with the cold water outside and the warm air on the inside, causing condensation.
Whether you are swimming indoors or outdoors, fogged up goggles are annoying so steps must be taken to avoid this. You must replenish the anti-fog coating using an anti-fog solution. If you do not have access to one, spitting on your lenses and then rinsing the spit out can provide some anti-fog capabilities.
Whatever you do, don’t touch the inside of the lens with your fingers, because this can transfer oils which make it easier for dirt and water droplets to stick onto and form condensation.
Goggles provide more benefits than risks
In this article, I detailed some of the most drastic ways in which swimming goggles can be dangerous. That said, these are extreme examples and generally not representative of what the majority of the people experience.
The reality is that goggles are invaluable to swimmers and are considered a must-have item. They protect your eyes from bacteria and debris in the water, increase your vision when you have taken the appropriate steps to prevent fogging up, and can even provide glare protection for outdoor swimming.
For the overwhelming majority of swimmers, goggles provide more benefits than risks and should be worn. Any problems with discomfort such as the straps digging into your skin can be addressed, and it is worth doing so, because goggles will protect your eyes more than it harms them.