While Americans like to put on sunscreen to maintain their skin, they may be underestimating the importance of sunglasses and eye protection against sun damage, a new study suggests. The nationwide survey found that three-quarters of Americans are worried about eye damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, but only 31 percent actually take action to somehow protect their eyes. It seems, then, that you should put your shades on more often than not — even in the winter.

“UV damage to your eyes can start in as little as 15 minutes,” said Justin Bazan, medical adviser to The Vision Council, in a press release. “Many Americans have a ‘passive’ relationship with their sunglasses, and they don’t realize the dangerous health consequences that can occur from overexposure to the sun’s rays without the right eye protection.”

Sunglasses are often reserved for long car rides or trips to the beach, but the new study argues that we should maybe wear them even more often. The survey found that 36 percent of Americans spend time outdoors between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are at their strongest. Our eyes are exposed to UV rays pretty much anywhere, including in the car, where asphalt reflects 9 percent of UV. When taking a walk, we’re looking at concrete, which reflect up to 25 percent of UV. And being near water is perhaps the worst, reflecting 100 percent of UV.

UV radiation is something of a silent killer, with the ability to damage our bodies at the DNA level. Sometimes, not even enough sunscreen can protect our skin from the most dangerous UV rays.

The latest survey found that Americans are familiar with the consequences of skin damage from the sun — such as sunburn and skin cancer, but less likely to know how the sun can hurt their eyes. UV exposure can cause sunburned eyes, cataracts, or even contribute to age-related macular degeneration. Known as photokeratitis or “snow blindness,” sunburn of the cornea can be painful — and often occurs due to glaring UV ray reflections from the snow (snow reflects up to 85 percent of UV). Then there’s pterygium, or “surfer’s eye,” which is a growth on the surface of the eye caused by intense exposure to sun, wind, or sand.

“Americans’ lax approach to sunglass use reveals that they are likely underestimating the danger of UV,” the authors wrote. “More than one-third of adults have experienced problems from UV exposure, including sunburn of the eye, red or irritated eyes, trouble seeing, wrinkles, and/or cancer on the eye.”

When looking for a new pair of sunglasses, be sure to purchase a pair that blocks 99 to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays, and screens out 75 to 90 percent of visible light. When choosing between style and UV protection, go for the latter. And remember that UV rays aren’t just coming from the sun; they’re often appearing as reflections from other surfaces, like snow, water, or concrete.

“Sunglasses might be the unsung hero of American accessories,” the authors wrote. “With just two small lenses, and sturdy, comfortable frames, the right sunglasses accomplish many feats that pair protection and 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.”

Source: 2016 UV Protection Report. The Vision Council. 2016.