Beyond SPF: How To Shop For Sunglasses That ACTUALLY Protect Your Eyes

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pagPhotography by Lauren Perlstein.
You already know the importance of protecting your skin with sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher, please), especially when you're spending more time outdoors (summertime!). You may also know that you should choose a sunscreen that shields you from both UVA and UVB radiation — and that sunscreen is recommended even on overcast days, since clouds don't keep either type of radiation from penetrating your skin.

With your skin getting all this attention, your eyes are often overlooked in terms of sun protection. Yes, a chic pair of shades has the power to pull an outfit together — but style shouldn't be the only consideration when sunglasses-shopping; the sun's rays can damage your eyes just as much as they can wreak havoc on your skin. What's more, UV damage is cumulative, so every time you step out in shades, you're doing your eyes a favor — and staving off potential sunburn of the cornea (the eye's outer layer) or conjunctiva (the layer that lines the eyelids), as well as preventing cataracts (clouding of your eye's lenses) and macular degeneration (retinal damage that leads to vision loss).

Suffice it to say that protecting your peepers should be a priority. But, how do we pick the right sunglasses to accomplish this feat? To find out, we spoke with Nancy Kirsch — licensed optician, assistant clinical professor at the SUNY College of Optometry, and director of ophthalmic dispensing at the college's University Eye Center — for the scoop on what you need to know to pick the perfect pair.

First off, what is the difference between UVA and UVB rays?

"Ultraviolet rays are wavelengths of light not on the visible spectrum. The main difference between UVA and UVB is that UVA rays are longer and UVB rays are shorter — but exposure to either can lead to skin conditions (premature aging, skin cancers) and may be involved in eye conditions as well (such as cataracts).

"UVA rays are less intense but more prevalent; they exist all year long, in all daylight hours, and penetrate more deeply. UVB rays vary in intensity depending on time of year and conditions. They're more responsible for sunburn. We think of the 'A' rays as contributing to aging and the 'B' rays as contributing to burning."

Is eye protection more important in summer than at other times of the year?

"While we focus on sunglass wear in the summer, it is equally important to protect your eyes during the rest of the year. UV rays are all around us, and not just in the summer. Just as you wouldn't think of leaving home without SPF protection, sunglasses should be worn all year long."

Are any sunglasses shapes better than others?

"Find a frame that provides good coverage; something too small will allow the rays to sneak in, either through the top of the frame or behind it. Sporty wraparound frames are designed to allow the least amount of light to come through."

If your lenses are scratched (maybe they've been swimming around in your handbag), does that negatively affect the protection they offer?

"Scratched lenses aren'y going to negatively affect the protection...but they will reduce the clarity. Light can scatter off a scratched surface and cause more glare to the wearer."
R29-PoolShoot-227 (1)Photography by Lauren Perlstein.
Are those cheap, $5 glasses from the sidewalk stand going to cut it when it comes to protecting your eyes?

"Shockingly, some of those $5 sunglasses will offer solid protection from UV. But, what they don't always offer is a good, clear, sound lens surface. Lenses frequently are warped and of non-optical quality. Wearing them can cause headaches and discomfort, so it's a double-edged sword. Do they block UV? Mostly, yes. Are they of good quality? Mostly, no. Additionally, the frames are usually so poorly made that they don't hold up to normal wear and tear."

Is lens color important when it comes to blocking UV rays?

"Lens color doesn't affect the ability to block UV. You can wear a clear lens that has UV-absorbing properties. It's most important to make sure that either UV protection is added, OR that the material the lenses are made of is inherently UV-absorbing. For example, polycarbonate lenses absorb UV without having to add additional coatings. Gray is a color that is very neutral and doesn't change the color of the world when you look through it. Brown tends to brighten things up a bit. The color is a matter of personal preference."

What do "polarized" lenses do?

"Polarized lenses are designed to reduce 100% of reflected glare. That's the kind of glare that comes off of water, snow, a road surface when driving, etc. Polarizing filters operate like venetian blinds — only allowing one direction of wavelength to pass through. They should be the first choice for those bothered by reflected glare. It would be worth it to look through a dark, tinted lens and compare that with what you see through a polarized lens. The difference is dramatic."

How do you test glasses to make sure they're not distorting what you see?

"If you look at a straight line while wearing the glasses, the line should continue to look straight as you move your head back and forth or up and down. Anywhere your eye looks through a non-prescription lens should be clear."

Are darker lenses more protective?

"Darker lenses allow less light to come through to the wearer's eye...that isn't necessarily a good thing. Certain eye conditions may need more light to be transmitted, and so a lighter sun lens might be better. The protection that is important is the absorption of the UV rays."