Eyeglasses: the basics


Eyeglasses may be ancient in their origins. But in many ways, they are more popular than ever, despite recent innovations in contact lenses and vision correction surgery.

Frame styles branded with high profile designer names like Calvin Klein, Jones New York, and Marc Jacobs continue to be in demand. And even for youngsters who might ordinarily dread the "nerd" factor of wearing eyeglasses, popular fiction characters like the bespectacled young wizard, Harry Potter, have become role models.

Eyeglass Frame Materials

Eyeglass frame materials, too, have been revolutionized with the advent of new plastics and various types of metals. Frames generally are fabricated from plastic or metal, but a wide variety of materials can be used, depending on the desired characteristics of the frame.

For example, for safety glasses, you may require a durable, lightweight frame material, such as polycarbonate. If you suffer from skin allergies, you probably should look for eyeglass frames made of hypoallergenic materials, such as titanium or stainless steel, to avoid a skin condition known as contact dermatitis.

Some eyeglass frames have components that can be snapped into place, rather than attached by screws or other means. This type of feature can be handy if you choose to "mix and match" different colored temples with the same set of lenses.

Certain types of eyeglass frames now also are highly flexible, which reduces the possibility of breakage. Spring hinges are also flexible. These types of frames are ideal for kids' eyeglasses, because of the durability factor.

Improved designs of nose pads also contribute to comfort and the look of how eyeglasses are positioned in front of the face. New silicone nose pads, for example, can prevent "slippage" but are so lightweight and soft that they are hardly noticeable.

Eyeglass Frame Styles

Eyeglasses have also become quite stylish as fashion accessories, especially among fans of high end designers. Many people choose frames the same way they choose shoes or handbags — selecting different colors and styles to match their wardrobes.

Multi-colored inlays, composite materials, designer emblems, and enhancements such as insets of precious stones may also be found in popular frame styles.

Rimless styles have become more popular in recent years as an understated way to wear eyeglasses without obvious frames. Rimless styles mainly involve attaching plastic or metal temples directly onto the lenses rather than onto a frame.

New eyeglass frame styles continually are being announced. Innovations include wood and bamboo frame materials and bold shapes, colors and designs in both plastic and metal frames.

Women's eyeglasses now are available in playful cat-eye shapes, as well as cutouts with elaborate design elements including swirls and angular patterns.

Men's eyeglasses have extra flair this season, with new styles that include classy designer logos and patterns embedded in translucent backgrounds.

Unisex eyeglasses for both men and women include plenty of rimless styles, which are popular as a good, generic fit for both sexes.

Kids' eyeglasses may look similar in style to those worn by adults, but are often more colorful with emphasis on durability to save parents the expense of constant replacements.

Advances in Eyeglass Lenses

Other reasons for the enduring popularity of eyeglasses include technology advances that make modern lenses thinner, lighter and more attractive than ever before.

Some of the most popular eyeglass lenses and lens treatments prescribed today include:

Aspheric lenses, which provide a slimmer, more attractive profile and sharper peripheral vision than conventional eyeglass lenses.

High-index plastic lenses that are thinner and lighter than conventional lenses and provide better built-in protection against the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Wavefront technology lenses are fabricated based on very precise measurements of the way light travels through your eye, which helps sharpen visual clarity.

Polycarbonate and Trivex lenses are thinner, lighter and up to 10 times more impact-resistant than regular plastic lenses, making them the perfect choice for safety glasses, sports eyewear and eyeglasses for children and active adults.

Photochromic lenses are clear lenses that provide 100 percent UV protection and automatically darken in response to sunlight to reduce the need for prescription sunglasses.

Polarized lenses diminish glare from flat, reflective surfaces (like water) and also reduce eye fatigue.

Anti-reflective coating is a popular add-on for lenses. AR (anti-reflective) coating can dramatically improve the look and comfort of your glasses by reducing distracting lens reflections that interfere with eye contact and make your lenses look thicker. AR-coated lenses also reduce glare and allow more light into your eyes for better night vision.

Photochromic lenses

An example of photochromic lenses. (Images: Transitions Optical)

Other lens coatings include scratch-resistant coating, anti-fog coating and UV

-blocking lens treatments.

For a quick comparison of eyeglass lens materials, see our article on "How to Choose the Best Lenses for Your Glasses."

Eyeglass Lenses for Presbyopia

Presbyopia is the normal age-related loss of focusing ability that affects virtually everyone after age 40. At some point, small print becomes impossible to read without multifocal lenses (if you already wear eyeglasses for nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism) or single vision

reading glasses (if you don't need prescription lenses to see distant objects clearly).

Multifocal and single vision eyeglass lenses available for presbyopia correction include:

  • Bifocals. Traditional bifocals have a clearly defined zone in the top half of the lens for distance vision and a zone for near vision in the bottom half of the lens. The zones are separated by a noticeable line.
  • Trifocals. These lenses have three different zones for seeing at varying distances — near, intermediate, and far — and can be custom made for you to accommodate your lifestyle or occupation.
  • Progressive lenses. These lenses have many advantages over bifocals and trifocals because they allow the wearer to focus at many different distances, not just two or three. Because they have no lines, progressive lenses allow a smooth, comfortable transition from one distance to another. They are a much better option for active, multitasking people.
  • Variable focus lenses. These innovative multifocal lenses look like single vision lenses, but they can be adjusted (with a small dial on the frame) to provide clear vision at any distance. You cannot see distant, intermediate and near objects simultaneously with these lenses, but you can "dial in" the power you need to see clearly at a specific distance, with a larger field of view than that provided by conventional multifocal lenses or progressive lenses.
  • Reading glasses. These are single vision lenses that contain magnifying power that allows a person with naturally good distance vision to see clearly up close after the onset of presbyopia. Reading vision is restored when wearing these lenses, but distant objects will be blurry through them. Reading glasses can be purchased with or without a prescription, and generally are available in powers ranging from +1.00 to +3.00 diopters (D).
retro-nerd reading glasses

Top: These retro-nerd reading glasses are the "Get Smart" style by Eileen West Black Label. Bottom: "Ringleader" by Cinzia Design


From a timeless aviator look to the sophistication of new designer styles, sunglasses are as common in outdoor settings as seashells on a beach. These days, the debate among sunglass wearers focuses on protection versus style. As much as sunglasses make a fashion statement, they also serve as an important device to protect your eye's health from damaging UV rays.

  • Plano sunglasses. "Plano" is the term used to describe lenses that contain no power for the correction of refractive errors or presbyopia. You don't need a prescription to buy plano sunglasses and you can find them in a variety of frame materials, including plastic and metals such as titanium, aluminum and stainless steel. Plano sunglasses are a good choice for anyone who has naturally good vision without corrective lenses and for contact lens wearers. Also, clip-on plano sunglasses can convert prescription eyeglasses into prescription sunglasses.
  • Designer sunglasses. These styles, often branded with popular names such as Armani, are generally sold in optical boutiques or department stores and tend to mimic current fashion trends.
  • Prescription sunglasses. Ideal for prescription eyeglass wearers, these eliminate the need for clip-on sunglasses. Prescription sunglasses are available anywhere prescription eyeglasses are sold.
  • Kids' sunglasses. Because you never know what kids might be doing, sunglasses for children should always include impact-resistant polycarbonate or Trivex lenses for added protection.

Eyewear for Sports Vision and Safety

People who are passionate about certain sports and recreational activities often begin to see a need for specialized eyewear, with added features that provide extra protection or vision correction beyond what is found in an ordinary pair of eyeglasses or sunglasses.

Sport sunglasses and performance eyewear can give you just the right tint, protection and design for your outdoor activity.

Diving masks and swim goggles are available to accommodate your eyeglass prescription.

Ski goggles come in several different lens tints, to increase your ability to see bumps and ice on the trail, depending on what the lighting conditions are at your favorite slopes. Many ski goggles are sized so they can be worn over regular eyeglasses.

Shooting glasses for hunters or rifle and handgun enthusiasts need to be extra tough and scratch-resistant, as well as specially tinted to enhance contrast and clarity of vision in the outdoors.

Protective eyewear in the form of sports goggles, made in many shapes and sizes, is essential for sports such as baseball, where a hard-hit line drive can permanently damage an unprotected eye.

Sports eyewear for teens and young athletes is especially important because a large percentage of sports-related eye injuries occur among teens and young children.

Safety glasses and goggles in some work environments, such as construction sites, are required by law. But even if safety glasses aren't mandated, it's still very prudent to wear them when you work or play in circumstances where your eyes are exposed to hazards such as dangerous airborne particles and debris.

Advice for Buying Eyeglasses

Your appearance, personal taste, and lifestyle provide the best guide to finding just the right eyeglasses for you.

Watch this video on what causes blurry vision and how we can correct it.

When selecting frames, make sure you analyze your face shape and coloring so that you find the most flattering look. While it's fine to admire what a favorite celebrity might be wearing, remember that the same style might not be the right look for you.

Also, buying eyeglasses or sunglasses online may not be the best choice because you'll be unable to try them on before buying. You could get lucky with an online eyewear purchase, but you never know for sure until you try them on and see how the frame fits your face.

While shopping for an affordable price is a good idea, beware of cheap eyeglasses and cheap sunglasses with prices that sound too good to be true. Cheap glasses often are made with low quality materials or poor workmanship and tend to be less durable than quality brands. [Read 10 Reasons To Avoid Cheap Glasses.]

It's also important to keep in mind that some frames just aren't right for certain types of lenses. Progressive lenses, for example, often don't work well in today's smaller, stylish frames. And it's best to choose a small, symmetrical frame that centers on your eyes if you have a high prescription. It is a very good idea to consider your lens selection first before buying frames.

Finally, even after you've tried on frames first, you may find that you just don't like the look or that the lenses aren't quite right for your vision correction needs. So be sure you ask your eye doctor or optician in advance about return or refund policies for prescription eyewear.

Page updated February 2018