The Patient's Guide to Over The Counter Sunglasses

5:25 PM

When you are buying over-the-counter sunglasses, it can be hard to know how much protection you are really going to get from wearing them.  The truth is, not all sunglasses available for purchase really meet the standards required to protect you from diseases like macular degeneration or cancers, or painful conditions like photokeratitis (a sunburn of the eye).  Here's what you need to know before swiping your credit card:

  • Know Your UV Coverage
    A sticker  like this verifies 100% UV Blocking, so make sure your OTC
    sunglasses have this sticker too!
On every pair of OTC sunglasses that meet regulations, there is a little sticker that will say somewhere between 98 to 100% UV A/ UV B blocking.  This is the first thing you need to look for.  If your sunglasses don't say this, then you aren't getting the protection you deserve.  Light from the sun enters the atmosphere in a spectrum of wavelengths, but the shorter wavelength ultraviolet rays are the most harmful.  UV C and most of UV B spectrum radiation is blocked by the Earth's atmosphere (one of the great benefits of the ozone layer).  The remaining UV radiation that penetrates falls into the UV A and UV B spectrum, so that is what you need protection against.  These rays cause issues like sunburns and skin cancers, both of which can occur on and inside your eye.

  • Darker Doesn't Mean More Protection

Tint on sunglasses is not the same thing as UV protection.  This is a common misconception -- I have even heard other doctors make this same mistake.  Here's an example -- Transitions or photogray lenses change from clear to dark when you step outside due to the UV exposure reacting with chemical polymers in the lens.  People routinely find that Transitions or photogray technology does not darken to the same extent as regular sunglasses, but they are still 100% UV blocking!  There is other research suggesting that darker sunglasses without UV protection inherent in the lens may actually be MORE harmful than lighter sunglasses without UV protection.  Why?  In darker conditions, your pupil is larger and thus lets more harmful UV radiation penetrate inside the eye!

    Polarized just means added glare filtration;
    nothing to do with UV light penetration
  • Polarized Sunglasses Aren't Healthier for the Eyes
As an optometrist, I get asked this question quite a bit.  Polarized doesn't have anything to do with sun protection; it is just a type of lens that filters out more glare.  Polarized lenses offer unparalleled visual clarity and comfort from glare, but they will not block UV light unless your sunglasses ALSO have UV protection.  The good news is that most polarized lenses also come with UV protection meeting our 100% UV A/ UV B standards, but ALWAYS check to be sure yours do when you are buying over the counter.

  • Kids Are More At Risk for Sun Damage than Adults!!

When we think of cataracts, macular degeneration, and cancers, we think of these issues affecting the elderly.  While it is true that in elderly people these conditions are much more prevalent, the latest science is showing us that the damage from UV radiation sparking these conditions is occurring when we are children!  As we age, our eye develops protection from UV light in the form of thickening of the lens (a structure that focuses light to the internal retinal photoreceptors).  In children, the lens is very thin and very clear, allowing as much as 70% of the atmospheric UV light to penetrate into the eye.  It is a lifetime of UV radiation that causes cancers and diseases like macular degeneration, so to protect yourself you have to start young.

  • Prescription Sunglasses Are Affordable Too
Price is such a major factor in all purchasing decisions, and we often think that sunglasses are too expensive if purchased anywhere but over the counter.  The truth is, prescription sunglasses not only offer unparalleled vision, lens quality, and of course, protection, but they are medical devices and thus can be purchased with insurance benefits and flexible spending accounts.  If you start looking, you will find that many opticals offer great sunglasses promotions for both prescription and non-prescription lenses this time of year.  If you have always dreamed of being able to wear Prada sunglasses, and have been settling for knock-offs, the reality is that you can purchase those designer frames a lot more easily than you think, and have sunglasses that will protect your eyes with lasting quality for years to come.  

Whether you are buying prescription level protection and style, or purchasing over the counter glasses for cost-effectiveness, my real message is that you have no excuse to settle on protection.  Don't cheat yourself out of the ability to have healthy eyes and skin for the rest of your life to save a little money on sunglasses that don't meet the 100% UV A / UV B specifications!

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  1. Polarized lenses help you see objects more clearly while preventing the harmful effects of UV light.
    Polarized Lenses

  2. I have vertical heterophoria. Polarized sun glasses make me nauseous.
    Also, what type of sunglasses do you recommend?

    1. Polarization likely causes you issues because one lens has a vertical polarized filter and one lens has a horizontal filter. Work with your doctor to trial different tint options and perhaps even prism correction if you are getting double vision in sunglasses.