Sunglasses: The Definitive Buyer’s Guide

Fashion trends change, but healthy, well-protected eyes are always in style


Man wearing sunglasses driving.

Why do you wear sunglasses? 

A.    To complete your beach outfit.
B.    To hide behind after a rough night.
C.    To perfect your movie star glam look.
D.    To protect your eyes from irritation, damage, and disease.

Chances are you did not pick D. 

When we buy sunglasses, we’re often thinking about fashion, not health—even though wearing sunglasses is one of the easiest ways to protect your vision. 

“I recommend sunglasses for everybody, young kids to seniors,” says Elizabeth Walsh Czirr, O.D., F.AAO, an optometrist at Nashville Regional Eye Care inside America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Kingsport, Tennessee.

But not just any old pair of sunglasses will do. She says there are a few key features and considerations to keep in mind as you pick them. Here’s your guide.

First, the Absolute Must-Have: 100 Percent UV Protection

Does the label or tag promise to block ultraviolet (UV) radiation? That’s not enough. It must block 100 percent of the two types of UV rays that punch through the atmosphere: UVA (the more common and intense long-wave rays that penetrate skin more deeply) and UVB (the short-wave rays that burn).

Here’s why this distinction is so important for your eyes:

Short term: A marathon day of sightseeing, or a day at the beach or on the slopes, exposes your eyes to enough UV rays to cause painful inflammation. It’s like having sunburn in your eye.

Long term: Over your lifetime, the more time you spend outside without a quality pair of shades, the higher your risk for cataracts (a condition marked by a clouding of the eye’s lens) and macular degeneration (an incurable eye disease affecting 10 million Americans that chips away at the center part of the retina). Both are leading causes of blindness.

Certain eye and skin cancers are also tied to long-term UV exposure. In fact, the eyelid is among the most common sites for skin cancer, accounting for up to 10 percent of all cases, according to experts at Columbia University's Department of Ophthalmology.

There are no federal laws regulating UV protection on sunglasses, so it’s up to you to pay attention. According to an American Optometric Association survey, 41 percent of us don’t. 

Check the frame or tag for the words “100 percent UV protection” or “UV 400,” which mean the same thing. The 400 means it blocks all rays of light up to a wavelength of 400 nanometers—the highest protection covering both UVA and UVB rays.

Best If You Have Allergies or Dry Eye: Wraparound Frames

By conforming to the curve of your face, wraparounds protect your eyes from all angles. Other styles won’t block peripheral rays, allowing more harmful radiation to reach your eyes. In fact, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that enough radiation can sneak around ordinary frames to compromise their protective benefits.

“Sunlight can hit other parts of your eye—it doesn’t just go straight in,” Dr. Czirr says. “Light is always bouncing around.”

One Australian researcher suggests that when skin cancer forms on the sides of the nose, it may be due to the way UV radiation reflects off the eyes—wraparound shades may prevent that from happening. 

Bonus: Wraparounds can also ease symptoms of dry eye and seasonal allergies by shielding your eyes from pollen and wind.

Can’t find wraparounds? Go with the big frames, Dr. Czirr says—the more coverage the better.

Best for Beach Bums and Ski Bunnies: Polarized Lenses

Treated with a special glare-blocking chemical, polarized lenses reduce eye irritation and fatigue, especially around water or snow.

“Polarized lenses are one of my favorite features,” Dr. Czirr says. “They make everything so crisp, and they block glare. They’re great for fishermen, bikers, runners, golfers—anyone who spends time outside.”

These lenses can make it hard to see screens, Dr. Czirr warns. If you’re trying to type in your PIN number at the ATM or scroll through your Twitter feed, you might have to tilt your head at odd angles. Likewise, they may make the heads-up display in your car disappear. Poof!

Best for Heavy Commuters: Gradient Lenses

These lenses are darker on top and lighter on bottom. Dr. Czirr says they’re great for anyone who spends a lot of time behind the wheel.

“They’ll still cut glare but aren’t so dark that you can’t function if you’re trying to see the speedometer or use the GPS,” she says.

Bonus: For anyone trying to score some fashion points, gradient lenses are very in style right now.

Best for Hardcore Athletes: Polycarbonate Lenses

These lenses are more impact-resistant than the average sunglass lens but probably aren’t worth the higher price tag for most of us.

“If you’re playing sports like outdoor basketball, the polycarbonate will be helpful. But if you just need them for the beach or for driving, an ordinary pair is perfectly fine,” says Dr. Czirr.

Keep in mind, all lenses have to meet impact standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety. Bottom line: Price has no impact on UV-blocking ability.

Best for Cloudy Days: Lighter Lenses

If you have a hard time wrapping your head around wearing dark sunglasses on cloudy days, Dr. Czirr says lighter lenses are a good compromise.

“Remember, the sun hits your eyes even on gray days,” she says. You still need shades that screen out 75 to 90 percent of visible light. Try them on in front of a mirror. Can you easily see your eyes? If so, go darker.

And remember: Always check the frame or label for that 100 percent UV guarantee.
 

 

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