Sunglasses vs. Photochromic Lenses for Older Adults

You’re never too old to protect your eyes from the sun. But older adults do need to take a few things into account when selecting the best pair of shades. 

Mature woman in sunglasses

You’d never go to the beach or a backyard cookout without your sunglasses. They’re a first-line defense against the sun’s glaring rays. But offering comfort on a bright day is just one of many tasks sunglasses handle for us — especially as we age.  

“Older adults don’t often realize that the right sunglasses can help with fall prevention or that the right lenses can help make activities like driving more comfortable,” says Stephanie Sonnenburg, O.D., of Virginia Vision Associates, P.C., located inside America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Danville, Virginia. “Sunglasses do more than simply offer shade.” 

Yet more than a quarter of Americans tend to skip eye protection when they’re outdoors, according to research from the Vision Council. That stat concerns optometrists like Dr. Sonnenburg. For good reason: Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun are known to contribute to everything from cataracts (clouded vision) and macular degeneration (loss of central vision) to cancer of the eye — not to mention wrinkles and general eye irritation. 

“We learn from an early age that when spending time outdoors, sunscreen is needed to protect our skin,” she says. “We need to think the same way about eye protection.”  

Dr. Sonnenburg says she makes a point of discussing sun protection with her patients. And for those who are older than 60, the conversation often goes into more detail. That’s because older adults may struggle more with the sun’s harsh glare due to cataracts, she says. They’re also at a higher risk of falls.  

Much like sunscreen, eye protection comes in different forms, including sunglasses and photochromic lenses, which are light-responsive lenses that transition from clear to dark in the presence of UV light. (Transitions®brand lenses are the best-known photochromic lenses.)  

Both have advantages and disadvantages, especially when it comes to older adults. Here’s what Dr. Sonnenburg wants older adults to consider when weighing sun-protection options. 

For Good UV Protection 
Both sunglasses and photochromic lenses have you covered. 

Photochromic lenses have UV protection built in. So do most — but not all —sunglasses. When purchasing sunglasses, look for a label that says “100% protection from UVA/UVB radiation” or “UV 400.”  

Both indicate that your eyes will be protected from the sun’s damaging rays, Dr. Sonnenburg says. (UV 400 refers to the length of the UV rays blocked.)  

If you opt for photochromic lenses, don’t worry that they don’t become as dark as sunglasses typically are. Darker doesn’t mean more adequate UV protection, explains Dr. Sonnenburg. 

When it comes to protecting the delicate area surrounding the eyes, frame choice matters. Wraparound or goggle-style sunglasses win out over regular styles. The extra frame coverage prevents UV rays from sneaking in from the sides.  

In a 2018 Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology study, goggle-style glasses beat out several other styles of shades, blocking nearly 100% of rays from reaching the areas surrounding the eyes. That’s important, considering that the thin, fragile skin around the eyes is extremely vulnerable to sun-induced wrinkling and skin cancer.  

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For Help Fighting Glare 
Polarized sunglasses are the way to go. 

Depending on the patient’s daily activities and individual symptoms, photochromic lenses may not be as effective at preventing glare as polarized sunglasses. If you routinely struggle with glare, polarized prescription sunglasses are the best bet. (It’s also possible to get lenses that are both photochromic and polarized.) 

Polarized lenses have a specialized chemical applied to them that filters out light. That means that compared with regular sunglasses or photochromic lenses, they more easily block the glare from the sun as it bounces off the pavement, water, snow, or chromed surfaces like cars. 

This is important to keep in mind if you do a lot of driving, as glare can lead to an increased risk of accidents.  

“Since photochromatic eyeglasses darken when they’re exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet light, they tend not to get as dark in the car, because the windshield actually blocks a majority of the UV rays,” explains Dr. Sonnenburg. “In this case, for people who drive for long periods of time, polarized sunglasses with UV 400 coverage may be a better option for daytime travel.” 

Glare tends to be more of a problem for people with lighter-colored eyes — their irises are more sensitive to light — as well as for people with certain ocular diseases. Take cataracts, for example. More than half of people age 80 and older have had cataracts, a condition that makes the lens of the eye become clouded.  

“Cataracts cause the light to bend in an unusual way and scatter when entering the eye, which may cause patients to experience more glare symptoms,” notes Dr. Sonnenburg. Glare can be similarly problematic for people with age-related macular degeneration, which leads to central vision loss. Folks with either condition, she says, should discuss the pros and cons of sunglasses versus photochromic lenses with their eye doctor. 

Have cataracts and headed into surgery? You’ll need UV-protective sunglasses afterward. Dr. Sonnenburg says that most surgeons provide a temporary pair to wear home. That’s because “the pupil is dilated during surgery, so that makes the patient more sensitive to light,” she says.  

For Staying Steady on Your Feet 
Sunglasses may beat out photochromic lenses for fall prevention. 

One out of 4 older adults will experience a fall this year. That adds up to millions of falls annually, frequently leading to serious problems such as broken bones or head injuries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists vision problems as a risk factor for falls.    

If you’re prone to falls because of age, poor vision, poor balance, or a medical condition, you may want to opt for sunglasses over photochromic lenses. The latter can take up to 30 seconds to transition from dark back to light, which can be tricky when moving from bright-light outdoors into a darker indoor environment.  

Dr. Sonnenburg gives the example of navigating stairs indoors; if your photochromic lenses are still dark from being outside, going up or down stairs could put you at an increased risk of a fall.  

A wiser option, then, may be wearing polarized sunglasses outdoors and changing into your regular prescription eyeglasses indoors, per the National Council on Aging.  

For No-Hassle Sun Protection 
Transition lenses are way more convenient. 

Because photochromic lenses also function as your prescription eyeglasses, you don’t need to worry about accidentally forgetting your sunglasses when you leave home to run an errand, walk a pet, or embark on other outings, Dr. Sonnenburg says. Your reading or everyday glasses will simply morph into sunglasses.  

This may also translate to less of a chance of losing your eyeglasses. After all, glasses are less likely to go missing when you don’t have two pairs to keep track of.  

One Last Thing to Know: Photochromic Lenses Have Evolved 

Photochromic lenses are nothing new. But recent advances in the technology mean you have more options to consider. For example, early versions only came in a standard gray or brown tint. Today, they’re available in a rainbow of hues (meaning they’re clear indoors but colored outdoors). 

Additionally, the Transitions®brand now makes an XTRActive® version that becomes darker outdoors and in the car than previous generations of photochromic lenses, as well as a Vantage® version that morphs from clear inside to dark and polarized outside.  

Bottom line: Both sunglasses and photochromic lenses have advantages and disadvantages. Your America’s Best eye doctor can help you make the best decision for your health and lifestyle.