Sunglasses have become such a personal statement of style. Movie stars, outdoorsy people, and beachgoers all look so cool when wearing them. You might be tempted to grab a pair that catches your eye at a gas station or convenience store, but you may want to think twice. The best reason to wear sunglasses is to protect your eyes from the dangers of sunlight, so you can avoid eye disease later in life.
Why You Need Eye Protection
Sunlight is full of invisible radiation beyond and under the wavelengths, we can see as colored light. Optometrists like ourselves often find the wavelength affecting patients most is ultraviolet light (UV).
A little bit of eye exposure to UV radiation is fine, but serious damage can be slow and painless. You probably won’t even notice it until the damage is done. Chronic UV ray exposure can lead to cataracts, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and other effects in the eye.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Sunglasses are your best bet for prevention, but they need the right UV protection levels.
UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, but scientists divide it into 3 groups of UV subtypes: UVA, UVB, and UVC.
UVC has a short wavelength so it’s got quite a lot of energy behind it. Wavelengths higher than visible light (and some studies include upper parts of visible light) have the power to injure humans.
The effect of UVC light has even been harnessed by HVAC companies to destroy microorganisms as a part of air quality. Fortunately, the sunlight your eyes are exposed to when you’re going about your day doesn’t contain UVC because the ozone layer filters it in the upper atmosphere.
UVB & UVA
UVB, and the lowest energy form, UVA pass through the ozone layer. But they can still damage your body’s cells. Roughly 95% of the UVA in sunlight reaches the earth’s surface, while only 5% of UVB light makes it. That 5% poses a significant risk, however, as does the 95%.
Light is a part of the same spectrum as UV radiation. Visible light is only slightly lower energy than ultraviolet, and although it hasn’t been agreed upon, violet, indigo, and blue light (together grouped into a category called high-energy visible light) could pose a subtle risk after UV light.
The sun is the biggest source of blue light, making up 55% of the average person’s total HEV exposure. The risks on HEV light are not clear, but some optometrists recommend adding blue light protection where it’s possible.
UV Damage Builds Up & Acts Slowly
The World Health Organization estimates that around 80% of a person’s UV exposure during their lifetime occurs before age 18. Kids love to play outside in the sun for hours on end, and sunglasses aren’t required by law; many parents simply don’t know that their kids need UV protection.
Kids themselves often don’t even know when there’s a problem. After all, cataracts tend to affect people much later in life, over age 55 for most. That fact might be because the damage takes a while to manifest, and cataracts affect the ocular lens behind your pupils, a type of tissue that has no nerves or blood vessels running through it.
Cheap Sunglasses or Expensive Sunglasses
Great sunglasses filter dangerous radiation with high energy levels like UVA and UVB totally. Stickers guaranteeing 100% UVA and 100% UVB protection are needed for eye safety when enjoying the outdoors.
They’re easy to wear, using quality materials and well-fitting designs, and they cover your eyes effectively. You can wear them comfortably for long periods of time over many years. All that quality costs a bit, so they might be expensive by the time they hit the shelves.
Cheap sunglasses could be cheap for lots of different reasons. But they probably just don’t have the quality that makes great sunglasses expensive. Manufacturers can cut corners and sacrifice quilty to keep their prices low. If that sacrifice comes from lower UV protection, it might not be worth it.
There are a few features that can shift the balance in your favor, to avoid the risks of cheaper sunglasses. Lens quality stands out first and foremost against these risks.
To provide the utmost UV protection, sunglasses worth buying display stickers or labels guaranteeing 99-100% UVA and 99-100% UVB screening. Buying sunglasses with anything less aids cataracts and age-related macular degeneration down the road. You might also feel you’re protected when you’re really not.
Sunglasses can provide different benefits when choosing the lens color, because of the way each color filters light. Cheap, novelty sunglasses often come in out there colors, for dramatic effect, but they might not handle HEV light in a way that eases sunlight for your eyes.
When you’re enjoying daylight outdoors, grey, brown, and green stand as the best colors for handling visible bands of light. An effective lens color can help you avoid eye strain.
Check how dark the sunglasses are. For direct sunlight, it’s best to find sunglasses screening 75-90% visible light. A high enough tint efficiently filters a large dose of HEV light, so if you’re worried about HEV light, highly tinted sunglasses are the place to start.
Cheap sunglasses are often sold in stores without a knowledgeable sales representative (like an optician) nearby. So if you buy a cheap pair, you might not find out if it’s meeting the healthy range of visible light filtration.
Polarization blocks glare bouncing off surfaces like the ground, tree leaves, water, or snow. The technology behind it lies in making microscopic rows out of the tinting particles in the lenses so that overpowered wavelengths of glare don’t make it through to your eye. Cheap sunglasses are not at all likely to have polarized lenses, meaning eye strain from glare can still affect sunglass wearers.
Frames shape obviously dictate how much coverage the lenses can get on your eyes. Novelty sunglasses with funky shapes might not give you that sufficient coverage, meaning your retina and your ocular lenses might be missing decent protection. If they’re not, you might be at a slightly greater risk for age-related macular degeneration or cataracts. Quality sunglasses are framed for good lens coverage over the eye.
If worn right up against your eyebrows, wraparound sunglasses offer all-around protection. Your macula, a key component in the quality of your vision at the center of your retina, is the part most at risk for UV (or HEV) exposure.
But other parts of your retina can suffer from UV damage too, as long as they’re exposed. Wraparound styles can’t really provide the right correction for nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism because of their shape. But if you wear contact lenses, you can get quality wraparound sunglasses and protect your ocular lens, as well as your retina from all angles—especially the macula.
Expert Sunglass Advice from Eye Health Professionals
At the end of the day, we recommend asking our opticians for guidance after your regularly scheduled eye exam. We can also advise on how a pair of eyeglass frames would serve as prescription sunglasses. Please be careful when, why, and how you wear cheap sunglasses; it might not be worth it!