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How to choose the best lenses for your glasses

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The lenses you choose for your spectacles — even more than frames — will determine how happy you are with your eye-wear.

Buying spectacle lenses is not an easy task, there are so many choices for lenses and coatings, without expert advice it's easy to be confused about what's worth buying.

This buying guide will help you cut through the hype about different types of spectacle lenses and help you choose lenses and coatings that offer the best features and value for your needs.

Why choosing the right spectacle lenses is so important

When buying spectacles, while the frame you choose is key to your appearance and your comfort, it's the spectacle lenses you choose that influence not only your appearance, but most importantly your vision, comfort, and safety.

A common mistake people often make when buying spectacles is not spending enough time considering their choices of spectacle lens materials, designs and coatings.

This article gives you the basics you need to know to buy spectacles lenses wisely.

The following information applies to all prescription lenses for glasses — whether you need single vision lenses to correct short sightedness, long sightedness, and/or astigmatism, or you need progressive lenses, bifocals or other multifocal lenses to also correct presbyopia.

Spectacle lens materials - features and benefits

Glass lenses

In the early days of vision correction, all spectacle lenses were made of glass.

Today less than 5% of all lenses are made of glass. They are heavy and can break easily, potentially causing serious harm to the eye or even loss of an eye. For these reasons, glass lenses are a fading choice for spectacles.

Plastic lenses

In 1947, the Armorlite Lens Company in California introduced the first lightweight plastic spectacle lenses. The lenses were made of a plastic polymer called CR-39, an abbreviation for "Columbia Resin 39," because it was the 39th formulation of a thermal-cured plastic developed by PPG Industries in the early 1940s.

Because of its light weight (about half the weight of glass), low cost and good optical qualities, CR-39 plastic, though an old material, remains a popular for spectacle lenses even today.

Polycarbonate lenses

In the early 1970s, Gentex Corporation introduced the first polycarbonate lenses for safety glasses. Later that decade and in the 1980s, polycarbonate lenses became increasing popular and remain so today.

Originally developed for helmet visors for the US Air Force, for "bulletproof glass" for banks and other safety applications, polycarbonate is significantly lighter and more impact-resistant than CR-39 plastic, making it a preferred material for children's eye-wear, safety glasses and sports eye-wear.

Another lightweight spectacle lens material with good impact-resistant properties like polycarbonate is Trivex (PPG Industries), which was introduced for eye-wear in 2001.

High-index plastic lenses

In the past 20 years, in response to the demand for thinner, lighter spectacles, a number of lens manufacturers have introduced high-index plastic lenses. These lenses are thinner and lighter than CR-39 plastic lenses because they have a higher index of refraction (see below) and may also have a lower specific gravity.

Here are popular spectacle lens materials, arranged in order of refractive index and lens thickness (pretty good indicators of cost). Except for the crown glass, these are all plastic materials.

Lens Materials
Lens MaterialRefractive IndexAbbe ValueKey Features and Benefits
High-index plastics1.70 to 1.7436 (1.70)
33 (1.74)
The thinnest lenses available.
Block 100 percent UV.
High-index plastics1.60 to 1.6736 (1.60)
32 (1.67)
Thin and lightweight.
Block 100 percent UV.
Less costly than 1.70-1.74 high-index lenses.
Tribrid1.6041Thin and lightweight.
Significantly more impact-resistant than CR-39 plastic and high-index plastic lenses (except polycarbonate and Trivex).
Higher Abbe value than polycarbonate.
Downside: Not yet available in a wide variety of lens designs.
Polycarbonate1.58630Superior impact resistance.
Blocks 100 percent UV.
Lighter than high-index plastic lenses.
Trivex1.5445Superior impact resistance.
Blocks 100 percent UV.
Higher Abbe value than polycarbonate.
Lightest lens material available.
CR-39 plastic1.49858Excellent optics.
Low cost.
Downside: thickness.
Crown glass1.52359Excellent optics.
Low cost.
Downsides: heavy, breakable.

Index of refraction

The index of refraction (or refractive index) of a spectacle lens material is a number that is a relative measure of how efficiently the material refracts (bends) light, which depends on how fast light travels through the material.

Specifically, the refractive index of a lens material is the ratio of the speed of light in a vacuum (like space), divided by the speed of light in the lens material.

For example, the index of refraction of CR-39 plastic is 1.498, which mean light travels roughly 50 percent slower through CR-39 plastic than it does through a vacuum.

The higher the refractive index of a material, the slower light moves through it, which results in greater bending (refracting) of the light rays. So the higher the refractive index of a lens material, the less lens material is required to bend light to the same degree as a lens with a lower refractive index.

In other words, for a given spectacle lens power, a lens made of a material with a high refractive index will be thinner than a lens made of a material with a lower refractive index.

The refractive index of current spectacle lens materials ranges from 1.5 (CR-39 plastic) to 1.74 (a specific variety of high-index plastic). So for the same prescription power and lens design, a lens made of CR-39 plastic will be the thickest lens available, and a 1.74 high-index plastic lens will be the thinnest.

Abbe value

The Abbe value (or Abbe number) of a lens material is an objective measure of how widely the lens disperses different wavelengths of light as light passes through it, (like a prism splits light into its colours). Lens materials with a low Abbe value have higher dispersion, which in higher prescriptions can cause noticeable chromatic aberration — e.g. visible as coloured edges on fluorecent lights.

When present, chromatic aberration is only noticeable when looking through the edges of spectacle lenses. It doesn't exist when looking directly through the central optical zone of the lenses as the eye's own chromatic aberration is much greater.

Abbe values of spectacle lens materials range from a high of 59 (crown glass) to a low of 30 (polycarbonate). All hi-index lens materials have lower Abbe numbers, but as the dispersion is only noticeable in high powers most people worry more about getting thin lenses than the effect of Abbe number.

Abbe number is named after the German physicist Ernst Abbe (1840-1905), who defined this useful measure of optical quality.

SEE ALSO: How to clean glasses without scratching your lenses

Aspheric design

In addition to choosing a lens material that has a high index of refraction, another way to give your lenses a slimmer, more attractive profile is to choose an aspheric design.

Aspheric designs — where the lens curvature changes gradually from the centre of the lens to its edge — enable lens manufacturers to use flatter curves when fabricating lenses, without degrading their optical performance.

Aspheric lenses are flatter than conventional (spherical) lens designs, they cause less unwanted magnification so the wearer's face and eyes look more natural through the lenses. Aspheric designs also improve the clarity of the wearer's peripheral vision and reduce 'distortions' that alter the wearer's view of the world.

Most high index plastic lenses are made with aspheric designs to optimise both the appearance and the optical performance of the lenses. With polycarbonate and CR-39 lenses, an aspheric design is usually an option.

Minimum centre thickness (or edge thickness)

There are ANZ standards for impact resistance, so there's a limit to how thin an optical laboratory can make your lenses.

In (concave) lenses for the correction of myopia, the thinnest portion of the lens is in the centre. In (convex) lenses that correct longsightedness, the thinnest portion of the lens is at its edges.

With their superior impact resistance, polycarbonate and Trivex lenses can be fabricated to a centre thickness of around 1.0 mm and still pass impact-resistance standard. Myopia-correcting lenses made of other materials usually have to be thicker in the centre to pass the standard.

The size and shape of your spectacle frames also will affect the thickness of your lenses, especially if you have a strong prescription. Choosing a smaller, where your eyes are well-centered frame can significantly reduce the thickness and weight of your lenses, regardless of the lens material you choose.

Generally, the thinnest lenses for your prescription will be aspheric lenses made of a high-index material, worn in a smaller frame.

Spectacle lens treatments

For the most comfortable, durable and best-looking glasses, the following lens treatments should be considered essential:

Scratch-resistant coating

All lightweight spectacle lens materials (see table) have surfaces that are significantly softer and more prone to scratches and abrasions than glass lenses. The softest spectacle lens is also the one that is the most impact-resistant: polycarbonate. Today virtually all plastic and high-index plastic lenses have a factory-applied scratch resistant coating for lens durability.

Most of today's modern scratch-resistant coatings (also called hard coats) can make your spectacle lenses nearly as scratch-resistant as glass.

Anti-reflection coating

An anti-reflection (AR) coating makes all spectacle lenses better. AR coatings eliminate reflections in lenses that reduce contrast and clarity, especially at night. They also make your lenses nearly invisible, so you can make better eye contact and you and others aren't distracted by reflections on your lenses. AR-coated lenses are also much less likely to have glare spots in photographs.

Anti-reflection coating is especially important if you choose high-index lenses, because the higher the refractive index of a lens material, the more light the lenses reflect. In fact, high-index lenses can reflect up to 50 percent more light than CR-39 lenses, causing significantly more sheen, unless AR coating is applied.

UV-blocking treatment

Cumulative exposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation over a person's lifetime has been associated with age-related eye problems including cataracts.

For this reason, people should protect their eyes from UV beginning in early childhood. Thankfully, polycarbonate and nearly all high-index plastic lenses have 100 percent UV protection built-in, due to absorptive characteristics of the lens material.

If you choose CR-39 plastic lenses, be aware that these lenses need an added dye applied to provide equal UV protection afforded by other lens materials.

Photochromatic treatment

This lens treatment enables spectacle lenses to darken automatically in response to the sun's UV and high-energy visible (HEV) light rays, and then quickly return to clear when indoors. Photochromatic lenses are available in virtually all lens materials and designs.

Cost of spectacle lenses and frames

Depending on the type of lenses and lens treatments you choose and the lens design you need, your spectacle lenses will usually cost more than the frames you choose — even if you choose the latest designer frames.

The amount you pay for your next pair of glasses will depend on many factors, including your visual needs, your desire for fashion and whether you have extras health insurance that covers a portion of the cost of your eye-wear.

Keep in mind that if you choose high-end designer frames and aspheric, high-index progressive lenses with premium anti-reflection coating, it's not unusual for the cost of your glasses to exceed $600. However, over the life of your prescription, that's only about the cost of a cup of coffee each week, which is very little considering how important our vision is day to day.

To get the best value, it's essential to understand the features and benefits of the products you are considering and to choose wisely with the help of a trusted optometrist.

FIND AN OPTOMETRIST NEAR YOU: Our locator lists nearby optometrist to make booking appointments easy.

When buying spectacle lenses, there's no substitute for expert advice

Buying spectacle lenses can seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be. The key is getting accurate, unbiased spectacle lens information from sources you can trust.

For greatest satisfaction with your eye-wear, in addition to using this guide, follow this advice during your eye test, ask your optometrist which spectacle lenses and lens treatments are best for your specific needs and glasses prescription.

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