Sunglasses: More than great fashion

It isn’t just your skin that’s at risk on a sunny day. Experts argue that long-term exposure to UV radiation can contribute to eye disease such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and growths in and around the eye. Bright light can damage your retina; and yes, it is possible for your eyes to get sunburned, a temporary but often painful condition known as photokeratitis. Squinting in bright light causes eye strain, leading to blurry vision, fatigue and headaches.

Regardless of your position on the sunscreen-versus-Vitamin D debate, research has shown that UV radiation won’t benefit your eye health or your vision. Experts argue that everyone should take measures to protect their eyes — especially wearing the right pair of sunglasses.

Always a popular fashion accessory, there are many options on the market to suit all tastes and budgets. Here’s what you need to know to get the best protection for your eyes:

The essentials

UV Protection: Finding efficient protection has little to do with price, colour and the darkness of the lens. UV protection is clear, colourless and widely available. What you really need to focus on is the numbers, and the higher the better. Check the label to make sure both UVA and UVB rays are filtered, and look for 100 per cent UV protection (or as close as possible) or the UV 400 designation on the label.

You may also come across voluntary industry standards when it comes to labeling: Cosmetic sunglasses block up to 60 per cent of visible light and UVA rays, and about 87 to 95 per cent of UVB. These glasses have a light tint which doesn’t offer much protection in harsh light. General purpose sunglasses block 60 to 92 per cent of visible light and UVA, and 95 to 99 per cent of UVB. This category is the only one recommended for driving. Special purpose glasses block up to 97 per cent of visible light and UVA, and at least 99 per cent of UVB. They’re recommended for prolonged exposure to harsh light.

Broad coverage: Regardless of what type of glasses or contact lenses you choose, you’ll want adequate coverage for your eyes and delicate surrounding skin. Remember, light can be reflected upwards from below and from the sides, especially if you are around sand, water or snow. Consider how much light is getting in from the top, bottom and periphery (i.e. can you see bright light in your peripheral vision?).

Contact lenses with UV protection only cover a limited part of the eye so sunglasses are still recommended. Glasses with broad lenses are currently in fashion, and there are many wrap-around styles available in frames and clip-ons.

A word of caution: Don’t just look in the mirror when trying on a pair. Keep your head still and move your eyes around to see if anything is blocking your line of vision. Frames with wide arms are popular in today’s trends but be aware that they can block your peripheral vision and create blind spots when driving.

A good fit: In addition to comfort, look for a style that fits close to your eyes and won’t slide down your nose. Avoid anything that pinches, or is too tight or too loose. It’s easier to get a custom fit when you special order a pair through an optometrist rather than buying something off the shelf which cannot be adjusted.

The right colour: The right (or wrong) colour affects how you see the world. Amber or yellow lenses filter out blue and green light, which make them a popular choice for sports enthusiasts. Some experts even argue that it’s blue light that contributes to macular degeneration. However, amber tinted lenses can make it hard to see traffic signals, and shouldn’t be worn while driving. They tend to filter out “haze” — which can also affect depth perception when it comes to long distances.

Your best bet: Grey and brown are recommended for everyday use, and they’re the most common colours available.

Personal preferences

Darkness: Choose a darkness or density that suits your comfort level. People who are sensitive to light will want to choose darker lenses. Gradient lenses — which are darker at the top than the bottom — can make it easier to see the dashboard when driving or perform other tasks without taking off your sunglasses.

Polarizing or polarized lenses: This coating blocks reflected light and reduces glare, which is ideal for driving or activities around water and snow. While it won’t provide any UV protection on its own, it will make it easier and more comfortable to see in certain conditions — like when the sun comes out after a rain storm.

Shatter-resistant: Polycarbonate (plastic) lenses are less likely to break, which makes them a safer bet for avoiding eye injuries when playing sports or working out. If you need prescription lenses, talk to your eye doctor about what options are available. Some types of lenses designed for children’s eyewear are light-weight and more durable than regular glass.

Scratch-resistant coating: Scratches are mostly a nuisance, but they can alter the effectiveness of your glasses. A scratch-resistant coating can offer some protection, especially for polycarbonate lenses.

Mirror-coated: This coating reflects light so less of it reaches your eye.

Infrared protection: Many manufacturers claim there are health benefits to infrared protection, but most experts agree that infrared rays are
harmless. If you have concerns, talk to your doctor or optometrist.

Price: You don’t need to spend a lot to get good protection, and there are a lot of options on the market to suit your needs and budget:

Over the counter sunglasses: You can pick up a pair of sunglasses with good UV protection just about anywhere, and they’re an inexpensive option if you don’t need a prescription or wear contact lenses. They’re cheaper to replace if you lose them, and you won’t feel guilty giving them away when styles change. However, be careful that they provide enough UV protection. When in doubt, take them to your optician to be tested.

Clips or attachments: Many eye glass frames come with sunglass clip-ons, but many generic versions also provide a good fit. They’re slim and easy to carry with you. If you have an expensive or complicated prescription (such as bifocals or trifocals), they’re a lower-cost alternative to prescription sunglasses. However, your original frames may not provide the broad coverage you need.

Shields or “sunglasses-that-fit-over-glasses”: Don’t cringe — these products have improved over the years and now come in a variety of styles. They offer good coverage, and can be worn over almost any pair of glasses. Their larger size may not easily fit into a purse or suitcase, but you can keep them on hand at the cottage or in your car.

Tinting: You can have tints applied to an existing pair of glasses to make them sun-friendly. This option gives you the widest variety of styles to choose from, and your health insurance or a benefits plan might just pay a portion of the costs.

Photochromatic lenses: Special dyes in these lenses cause them to darken according to lighting conditions. In other words, you have clear lenses indoors and at night, and the right level of tint for every situation. They’re convenient because you don’t have to worry about changing (or losing) your sunglasses or clips. You’re also less likely to experience eyestrain because you won’t be squinting when light conditions change, and they work with most frames and prescriptions. (A word of caution: these lenses aren’t recommended for driving because they won’t darken inside a vehicle.)

Prescription sunglasses: Perhaps the most expensive option, but you’ll get exactly what you want in a style that provides better coverage than your average set of frames. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, driving or playing sports, look into specialty glasses.

When it comes to style, choose a frame that flatters your face and don’t be shy to ask for a second opinion. Read labels and ask questions if you can’t find the information you need. It may take a little shopping around to find the best fit and price, but your eye health is a worthwhile investment.

Sources: Consumer Guide to Sunglasses, Health Canada, Optometrists Association of Australia: Ultraviolet and the eye, University of Waterloo School of Optometry.

Photo © Rich Legg

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