Exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun can lead to long-term eye damage, including age-related macular degeneration – the leading cause of blindness in North America in people over age 55, according to Doctors of Optometry Canada.

The Canadian organization says sunlight is “by far the greatest source of UV radiation” and recommends people protect their eyes from the sun by wearing sunglasses or other eyewear with anti-UV coatings.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind also says people can avoid vision loss by making simple lifestyle changes like wearing UV-protective sunglasses year round when outdoors.

Yet, despite repeated messages about the importance of protecting the eyes from UV rays, less than one-third of adults wear sunglasses each time they go outside, according to a recent report by The Vision Council.

The organization says it is encouraging eyecare professionals to talk with their patients about the impact of UV exposure on the eyes as well as the options for properly protecting the eyes from the sun.

“By highlighting the cumulative and irreversible damage UV overexposure can cause, we hope to encourage (people) to make UV-eye protection an everyday habit to preserve their eyesight,” says Mike Daley, CEO of The Vision Council.

The organization’s 2016 UV Protection Report, entitled Spare Your Sight: Using Shades for Protection and Style, contains the results of a 2016 VisionWatch survey, which asked 10,000 adults questions related to UV eye exposure and the use of sunglasses.

It found that while three-quarters of people are concerned about UV exposure on the eyes, only 31 per cent wear sunglasses each time they are outdoors.

In fact, the survey found that people are more likely to identify the long-term effects of UV light on their skin than on their eyes.

Short-term exposure to UV rays, according to the report, can cause photokeratitis – a painful sunburn of the cornea – as well as pterygium – an abnormal growth on the surface of the eye.

Going without shades can also make the eyes hypersensitive to light and can cause other temporary issues like swelling.

But, the report points out, damage from UV rays is cumulative and so prolonged exposure can lead to far more serious issues, like cataracts, that can lead to vision loss.

Many of the problems can start out symptom-free.The Vision Council says sunglasses are the “unsung hero”

The Vision Council says sunglasses are the “unsung hero” of North American accessories. They are essential, it says, to maintaining healthy vision.

“With just two small lenses, and sturdy, comfortable frames, the right sunglasses accomplish many feats that pair protection and style,” the report says.

“They shade uncomfortable bright light and enhance contrast. Available in all shapes and sizes, they can help improve performance during sports and exercise, while sprucing up personal style. But most importantly, when used as directed, these small but mighty accessories can filter out the harmful ultra-violet radiation that penetrates and damages eyes.”

The Vision Council says consumers must ensure their shades protect against UVA and UVB radiation.

That’s something that only 44 per cent of respondents to the Vision-Watch survey say they are concerned about.

“Many consumers make sunglass purchases based on style and comfort, but fail to check the label to make sure lenses are UVA/UVB protective,” Daley says.

The survey also found that: 39 per cent of respondents only reach for their sunglasses when they are outside for two or more hours, even though UV damage can start in as little as 15 minutes; when it comes to buying shades, more people are concerned with fit (65 per cent) and affordability (54 per cent) than UV protection (44 per cent); and 34 per cent of people have experienced symptoms of prolonged UV exposure, such as eye irritation, trouble seeing and red or swollen eyes.

The Vision Council says an annual eye exam is critical to keeping eyes healthy, as they can diagnose early signs of damage from UV exposure, when it’s most treatable.

The full survey can be found at