Why you should avoid cheap sunglasses

Optician grad offers tips on protecting your eyes year-round

ZZ Top offered pretty bad advice about eyewear.

tana currie, nait grad and owner and lead optician of the vision parlourIf you get up in the morning and find that the light hurts your head, as goes the scenario in their 1979 earworm of a single, you should not hit the streets “a-runnin’” so that you “beat the masses” en route to purchasing “some cheap sunglasses.”

We’ll excuse it. This was an American blues-rock band, after all, not a trio of opticians or ophthalmologists. (What’s more, the sunglasses that the band members were always pictured wearing were actually fairly expensive.)

But while we might excuse their misguidedness, we cannot allow it to stand.

To get the facts on the impact of low-quality sunglasses, and for tips on finding good ones, we turned to Tana Currie (Ophthalmic Dispensing - Glasses ’06, Optical Sciences - Contact Lenses ’08), owner and lead optician at The Vision Parlour. Think of it like music to your eyes, or at least as good advice for keeping them healthy.

What sunglasses do

sunglasses held up to the sky, light passing through

There are two main reasons for wearing sunglasses:

  1. To protect your eyes from UV light, says Currie, which can lead to cataracts, or a clouding of the eye’s lens as we age.
  2. To reduce glare, an intensity of direct or reflected light that interferes with our vision.

Particularly because of reason #2, summer is not the only time to consider sunglasses, Currie points out. “There's actually more light reflected in the winter because of the snow and ice.”

The trouble with cheap sunglasses

sunglasses with scratched lens popped out

Always look for a “UV400” rating, says Currie. This blocks nearly 100% of damaging UVA and UVB rays, which have wavelengths of up to 400 nanometres.

You might see this rating in a shop where the masses might go to get sunglasses, such as a convenience store. It’s not inaccurate, says Currie, but often the UV protection on inexpensive glasses is little more than a film on the lens that can scratch or wear off easily. How will you know? The low price is one indication, says Currie, but if you’re not dealing with an eye-care professional, there’s no real way to tell.

Higher-quality glasses, in contrast, have that UV protection built into the lens itself. “It can get scratched and still have full protection,” says Currie.

Darker isn’t necessarily better

woman in sunglasses enjoying the sunshine

Dark-tinted glasses can actually harm your eyes if they do not offer appropriate UV protection, says Currie.

“There's no relation between darkness [of sunglasses] and the protection they provide,” says Currie. “Actually, if you go too dark, your pupil is going to dilate and allow more light into the back of your eye, causing more damage than not even wearing sunglasses.”

Should sunglasses be polarized?

glare on blue water

Polarization introduces a filter into the lens that reduces glare and works in concert with UV filters to offer increased protection. It softens the intensity of light reflected off of water or ice, for instance, to help ease eye strain and sharpen vision. “Your eyes relax and you’ll be able to see better,” says Currie.

But in some cases, Currie points out, you won’t be able to see everything. As an alarming example, she offers, a pilot might not be able to see an LCD navigation screen through a pair of polarized aviators. An eye-care pro can test lenses for polarization.

Bigger the better

man in sunglasses driving a car

The old song wasn’t all wrong: In verse three, it wisely suggests selecting “some big black frames.”

They can be any colour, but size is important. Currie says good coverage is essential to block UV rays from all angles. In this case, she adds, the Kardashians are the models to follow – especially when wearing wraparound sunglasses, a choice undoubtedly motivated by efforts to maintain exceptional eye health.

Cover the kids

little girl in sunglasses lying in the sand

“The damage is done when you’re young,” says Currie. She wishes more parents would put good-quality sunglasses on their children to save them from trouble when they’re older. Little ones won’t suffer much now, she acknowledges, but they’ll thank you later.

“That magic age of 40 is when you start noticing some cataracts.”

Good sunglasses aren’t cheap (but not that expensive either)

ray ban logo sign

For a good pair of non-prescription sunglasses, expect prices to start at around $85.

You don’t need to keep up with the Kardashians’ pricey Chanel frames or seek out those vintage ZZ Top Ray Bans. “Some of the lower-priced frames have amazing lenses,” says Currie. That is, sometimes they’re the same ones – with built-in UV protection and polarization – that are in the pricy elite-brand frames.

Consider getting a warranty in case of a scratch, allowing you to trade in for new lenses.

Keep them scratch free

woman taking sunglasses out of case in the sunshine

How do you avoid that scratch in the first place? “If they're not on your face, they’re in the case,” says Currie.

Also, don’t store them by flipping them up on top of your head, she adds. You could stretch the frames.

Talk to a pro

woman trying on sunglasses with help of optician

Just as not all sunglasses are created equal, different sunglasses are better suited for certain uses than others (or, absolutely required, so as not to blind pilots). An optician can help. If you’re a golfer or tennis player, Currie suggests an amber or brown tint to help boost contrast. For drivers, grey will enhance clarity.

And if you’re a musician looking to make an iconic fashion statement, there are the right, reasonably priced lenses for that, too. Maybe just don’t wear them at night.

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