It's horrible. We need to do a better job of (protecting our eyes). The eye is the only organ that you can do internal damage to from the outside. —Joy Gibb, optometrist
SALT LAKE CITY — Young mother Kelsey Morris sat and squinted as she watched her 4-year-old daughter, Meeka, running through fountains at the Olympic Legacy Plaza at The Gateway on a sunny afternoon.
Kristal Jones sat watching her granddaughter too, but from behind a pair of sunglasses she said she wears every time she's outside.
A recent study by The Vision Council revealed that Salt Lake City ranked 18th among U.S. cities with the highest ultraviolet index levels in 2013.
Yet, 17 percent of adults in Utah's capital city report wearing sunglasses every time they go outside. That's 10 percent less than the national average.
"It's horrible. We need to do a better job of (protecting our eyes)" said Joy Gibb, optometrist for Daynes Eye and Lasik in Bountiful. "The eye is the only organ that you can do internal damage to from the outside."
Adults aren't the only ones who need protection. Gibb said children are more at risk than adults.
"It's important that we start protecting our kids young," she said. "Most of that damage occurs when the kids are very young."
The Vision Council reports that Salt Lake City experienced 119 days of "very high" to "extreme" levels of UV radiation.
"After penetrating the eyelid, UV radiation is absorbed by the cornea, causing very painful short-term problems and cumulative damage that can lead to cataracts and age-related macular degeneration," the report states.
Gibb said UV exposure can be linked to developing cataracts, when the lens of the eye becomes opaque, or macular degeneration, the loss of center vision.
Morris said she wears her sunglasses when they aren't lost. She bought a pair for her daughter because they were fashionable, but Meeka often loses her glasses too.
Tenneille Samus grew up in Hawaii, spending a lot of time surfing but not protecting her eyes. Samus said she felt irritation in her eyes and now wears sunglasses whenever she leaves the house.
"I definitely think wearing sunglasses is important," she said.
But looking down at a pair of sunglasses she said she picked up while grocery shopping, her biggest concern is knowing whether the sunglasses are 100 percent UV protective like many stores advertise.
Gibb said if there is any question on the level of UV protection, most eye-care professionals have a UV meter in their office that can measure the amount of protection.
"You don't have to break the bank in order to get good sunglasses," Gibb said. "Making sure that you're buying them from somebody reputable will give you a better shot at having what you need."
Gibb said sunglasses should have 100 percent UVA and UVB protection.
Celeste Childs, 31, of Alpine, said she doesn't often wear sunglasses. During a recent dilated eye exam, her optometrist told her she has a lot of sun damage in both eyes.
"It's an easy thing to put on a pair of sunglasses. It's an easy thing to put on some sunscreen," she said. "And when we don't do those little measures to help our bodies be healthy and then something ends up going wrong and you end up having damage, then it's a bummer because you could have prevented it."
Childs said now she finds herself reaching for her sunglasses much more often.
"I think subconsciously (the optometrist) planted a seed of, 'Your eyes are damaged. You need to protect your eyes,'" she said.
Child said she bought sunglasses for her two sons but said they won't wear them.
"They keep them on for about two seconds to look cool, and they rip them off and throw in them in the car," she said.
Gibb said it is never too late to protect eyes from UV rays.
"Any protection you can give yourself is good protection," she said.