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Types of sunglasses: A user’s guide

The various types of sunglasses on the market can seem endless — you can choose from prescription sunglasses, polarized sunglasses, fashion sunglasses, sports-performance sunglasses, colored lenses and more. Which fits your needs? The type of lenses and the best style of frames for you will depend on the amount of sun protection and glare reduction you’re looking for, combined with what best suits your face shape and personality.

Sunglasses and eye health

Protecting your eyes from the sun is essential year-round, so you’ll want to make sure your sunglasses include quality lenses that offer 100% protection from damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. Decades of exposure to ultraviolet rays can lead to issues later in life, including cataracts.

UV rays shouldn’t be your only concern. The sun also throws off high-energy visible (HEV) radiation — sometimes called "blue light" — that can contribute to macular degeneration (AMD) and other eye problems.

While cataracts and macular degeneration are long-term concerns, there are more immediate issues caused by the sun. In the short term, overexposure to sunlight can sometimes cause photokeratitis, a condition the American Optometric Association likens to “a sunburn of the eyes.” (This is also commonly known as snow blindness.) 

It’s also worth noting that sunglasses should be worn on cloudy days as well, since UV rays can penetrate clouds. On top of sun protection, cyclists, boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts need a layer of protection to shield their eyes from branches, debris and other airborne hazards.

Types of lenses

When choosing sunglasses, it’s important to think about any vision challenges you face, as well as the outdoor conditions in which you’ll be using them. Do you hike at high altitudes? Do you spend all day fishing from a boat? Do you need prescription glasses? 

To figure out which type of sunglasses are best for your eyes and vision health, you’ll want to start with the lenses.

Polarized lenses 

The lenses in polarized sunglasses are designed to reduce glare from sunlight reflecting off flat surfaces, such as metal, water and snow. They feature a special anti-reflective coating that only allows light rays to enter your eyes vertically — meaning you can see whatever you’re looking directly at — while blocking light from entering at any other angle, so there’s less glare from the sun bouncing off the reflective surfaces around you.

This makes polarized sunglasses a popular choice for people who spend a lot of time outdoors, on the road and near water, including boaters, anglers and lifeguards who swear by polarized lenses. In addition to reducing uncomfortable glare, these can also boost your visual acuity — polarized lenses can let you see below the surface of the ocean or a lake.

But this type of sunglasses isn’t only for outdoors enthusiasts; anyone who finds the sun’s glare uncomfortable can get relief from these advanced lenses. For instance, many motorists like polarized sunglasses because they reduce glare reflecting from other vehicles or off of light-colored pavement. 

Those with a sensitivity to light, such as people who have undergone cataract surgery, can also benefit from polarized sunglasses.

Non-polarized lenses

Polarized lenses aren’t always a perfect solution. The filter that reduces glare also can make it difficult to see other things, such as your phone screen, or the digital readouts on gas pumps and ATMs. Some boaters and pilots can’t see certain types of instrument panels while wearing polarized lenses. And downhill skiers find polarized lenses aren’t the best sunglasses option for them — bright spots on the snow can indicate icy conditions that are best to avoid, but polarized lenses can render that hazard invisible.

Despite the short list of drawbacks, polarized lenses are a good choice for most people participating in most outdoor activities. Polarized lenses can be paired with prescription lenses, such as progressive lenses or photochromic lenses.

SEE RELATED: What are the advantages of polarized sunglasses?

Other types of sunglasses lenses

When choosing the right sunglasses lenses for you, the polarized vs. non-polarized issue is just one factor to weigh. Other considerations for your choice of lenses include:

  • Prescription lenses. Do you need vision correction when driving or for other outdoor activities? If you have even a small amount of refractive error, correcting your outdoor vision with rx sunglasses will help you see more clearly and comfortably in bright sunlight. The first step to getting the best outdoor vision possible is to schedule an eye exam.

  • Mirrored lenses. These lenses look cool, but they also can reduce glare and alleviate eye strain. If your activities include high-altitude hiking, skiing or snowshoeing, consider mirrored sunglasses. This feature can block as much as 60% of sunlight in the harsh conditions posed by high elevations.

  • Glass lenses. Glass is the original material for sunglasses lenses and offers a number of benefits. It’s durable, and glass lenses can give you the truest, least distorted view. However, glass lenses are heavy. And for certain activities where a shattered lens is a risk to your eye health, glass is not a safe material.

  • Plastic lenses. Plastic is lighter than glass and provides more protection against shattering. Plastic also is easier to coat with various tints and treatments. 

  • Polycarbonate lenses. Most sunglasses lenses are made of plastic or glass, but polycarbonate lenses offer a high-tech choice. These lenses are lightweight and shatter-resistant, and they block 100% of the sun's harmful UV rays.

SEE RELATED: What are Tac Glasses?

Colored lenses: A quick guide

If you’re serious about your outdoor activity, you might need multiple pairs of sunglasses. That’s because different types of lenses perform differently based on light conditions, or on the type of activity you’re doing. A fisherman trying to spot a fish underwater has different needs from a skier eyeing a set of upcoming moguls. A golfer sizing up a shot on a sunny day has one vision challenge, while a mountain biker riding on a shady trail has another set of issues.

Even if you stick to one activity, your needs will change depending on weather conditions. It’s even possible that your activities of choice mean you might need a set of tinted lenses specifically tailored to your sport. Here’s a breakdown of how colored lenses work:

  • Gray lenses. This variety of lens tint is versatile — gray lenses work on sunny or overcast days. They’re good for driving, cycling and fishing, and gray lenses function well for sports such as baseball and tennis. The most common hue for sunglasses lenses, gray lenses don’t interfere with color perception.

  • Brown/amber lenses. This lens tint can enhance depth perception. While brown/amber lenses are great for pilots, sailors and golfers seeking clarity on sunny days, they tend not to work well on cloudy days.

  • Green lenses. This tint is a good all-around choice for outdoor sports — green lenses both reduce glare and brighten shadows. Because they work in rain or shine, green lenses are a versatile choice.

  • Yellow lenses. These lenses are a favorite of baseball players, target shooters, skiers and pilots. Yellow-tinted lenses can enhance focus in hazy conditions. (When driving at night, avoid wearing yellow-tinted lenses — or any other kind of sunglasses for that matter.)

  • Blue lenses. This tint can reduce glare in rainy or overcast weather conditions. Blue or purple lenses also work well in mist, fog and snow. What’s more, blue lenses can have a calming effect on the eyes.

  • Red lenses. Red or pink lenses are especially good in snow and can help improve depth perception. Because red lenses block blue light, they’re also a favorite of gamers and computer users.

While colored lenses can make a fashion statement, a high-quality set of tinted lenses also can protect your eyes from the sun’s harmful rays. Don’t confuse the lighter tint with a lack of protection. A pair of yellow lenses, for instance, might not block as much visible light as a cheaper set of darker lenses, but the yellow lenses still can be designed to filter 100% of UV rays.

SEE RELATED: Why different lens color in sunglasses?

Types of sunglasses frames

Of course, sunglasses don’t just protect your eyes from the sun or block out glare — they also let you express your personal style, especially through your choice of frames. Common frame shapes to consider include:

  • Aviators, a curved shape that flatters many face types

  • Round  

  • Rectangular

  • Square

  • Oval

  • Heart-shaped

Additionally, you can opt for performance sunglasses, many of which come with wraparound frames. The American Optometric Association recommends wraparound sunglasses for people who spend long hours in the sun. With their broader surface area, wraparound shades provide extra protection by blocking light from the side.

Figuring out what looks good on you

Choosing sunglasses isn’t all about sun protection and visual performance, of course. You also want your shades to flatter you. A good place to start is determining the shape of your face — from there, you can get a sense of which styles do and don’t work for you.

  • A square-shaped face is about as wide as it is long, with a pronounced jawline. If this describes you, your best bet are sunglasses with rounded frames, or frames with a slight curve — aviators, for example — to soften the angles.

  • If your face is round, it’s also about as wide as it is long, only with a more rounded jawline. To give yourself some angles, consider square or rectangular frame shapes, but avoid oversized frames that can add too much width. Aviator frames, with their slight curve, may also be a great choice for you.

  • A heart-shaped face is like a triangle, with a broader forehead and narrower chin. If this is your face shape, you can minimize the width of the top part of your face with rounder frames, or classic Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses

  • An oval face is slightly longer than it is wide. The good news if this describes you: Just about any style of frame can work, so try aviators, Wayfarers, wraparounds or any geometric shape that suits your personality. 

  • If your face is long and narrow, it’s oblong-shaped. Consider oversized frames, rectangular Wayfarers, aviators and bold shapes — just avoid very narrow or small lenses that may emphasize the narrowness of your face. 

Ultimately, the right type of sunglasses for you will start with high-quality lenses that offer you 100% protection from UV rays. From there, you can have fun with it, and play around with a range of tints and a vast array of frame shapes and styles to suit your face and personality.

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