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What are photochromic sunglasses?

man outside wearing photochromic sunglasses

If you’re searching for a new pair of sunglasses, you may have come across certain kinds that feature photochromic lenses

Commonly known as “transition lenses,” in part because of the popular Transitions Lenses brand, they automatically change from clear to dark when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays, helping your eyes to adjust to different levels of sunlight with ease.

According to the Ophthalmology Times, "photochromic lenses provide 100% ultraviolet light protection, reduce eye fatigue and create higher contrast for better acuity."

These light-adaptive lenses do so by reacting to sunlight and darkening accordingly, so you can safely protect your eyes whenever you’re outside, no matter the lighting conditions. 

SEE RELATED: How do photochromic lenses work?

What are photochromic sunglasses? 

You might be asking yourself, “What does photochromic mean?” Photochromic simply means changing color upon exposure to radiant energy, like UV light rays. 

This is exactly what sunglasses with photochromic lenses do: They become dark in the presence of UV rays, allowing you to move from indoor to outdoor lighting conditions smoothly, even on overcast days when the sun’s ultraviolet radiation pushes through the clouds. 

The technology behind this can differ between brands and styles. Some photochromic lenses may contain silver chloride and halide molecules, while others use proprietary dyes that react to the UV rays. 

Many people who have photochromic lenses have prescription photochromic sunglasses, so they don’t have to change their prescription eyeglasses when they’re exposed to different light.

Non-prescription photochromic sunglasses are also available, and can work as flexible sunglasses that adjust to the different levels of UV light you might encounter. 

Who should wear photochromic sunglasses?

If you find yourself switching out your prescription eyeglasses for sunglasses every time you go outside, you may want to think about the convenience and flexibility of photochromic sunglasses — they’re both devices in one. 

These are also a great option for people with photophobia (light sensitivity), since you’ll always be prepared with lenses that adapt to different lighting situations, including very intense sun. 

Other things to consider include: 

  • Flexibility — Wearing sunglasses with photochromic lenses means you can move between areas with different degrees of sunlight without worrying about switching out your glasses — talk about low-maintenance and convenience!

  • Time spent outdoors — If you spend a lot of time outside in the sun, photochromic lenses may not be your best bet, as they’re not as equipped to handle long-term sun exposure as some other types of lenses, such as polarized sunglasses

  • Outdoor activities — Photochromic sunglasses are perfect for people who engage in certain outdoor sports, including cycling, since you can protect your eyes and comfortably see, regardless of potentially changing lighting conditions you encounter during your activity.

  • Driving — Photochromic lenses don’t always transition while you’re in a vehicle. That’s because car windshields are typically treated to protect against ultraviolet rays, and your lenses won’t necessarily get triggered by the sun to adapt. If you drive frequently, or over long distances, you may need to buy a separate pair of shades.

  • Cost — Sunglasses with photochromic lenses can cost more initially than ones without. However, you may end up saving money in the long run by combining your eyeglasses and sunglasses into one.

Whether or not you wear prescription eyeglasses, it’s important to keep in mind that you need to wear UV protection sunglasses even when it’s overcast. That’s because UV rays can penetrate clouds and cause damage to your eyes. It’s another reason photochromic sunglasses are a good option: They’ll keep you protected on darker days when standard sunglasses would provide too much shade.

Photochromic sunglasses vs. polarized sunglasses

Polarized and photochromic sunglasses are both helpful for protecting your eyes from harmful UV rays. But, since polarized sunglass lenses also reduce light glare, they can help you see more clearly while driving, playing sports or fishing — you may even be able to peer below the reflective surfaces of water.

Meanwhile, photochromic lenses turn your clear (or nearly clear) eyeglasses into sunglasses. They automatically get darker, so you don’t have to worry about switching back and forth from your indoor eyeglasses to your prescription sunglasses. 

Today you’ll find a number of photochromic sunglasses brands that offer the best of both worlds, combining polarizing and photochromic technologies. This is especially true of sunglasses made specifically for sports use. 

SEE RELATED: The differences between photochromic vs. polarized lenses

Types of photochromic lenses 

Photochromic sunglasses come in different styles to fit your taste and vision needs. Beyond prescription and non-prescription lenses, you might be interested in looking into one (or more) of the following:

  • Photochromic bifocal sunglasses — If you need bifocal glasses to focus your vision on objects at any distance, special bifocal lenses can help you experience the benefits of light-adaptive technology. 

  • Photochromic reading glasses — With reading glasses that feature photochromic lenses, you can read and do work inside and out, no matter how bright it is.

  • Photochromic sunglasses with polarized lenses — If you want to experience the best of photochromic and polarized sunglasses, look to brands like Transitions Lenses that are experimenting with merging polarization and photochromic technologies. Some of these sunglasses are ideal for driving since they react to visible light and not just UV light, meaning your glasses will work behind the windshield.

  • Photochromic motorcycle sunglasses — Bikers will appreciate sunglasses with photochromic lenses if they ride both at night and during the day — with these shades, there’s no need to switch glasses when the sun goes down. These are a great option for cyclists, too. 

  • Photochromic sport sunglasses — Photochromic lenses work really well for sports eyewear, including specialized sunglasses for snow and water sports. Such glasses are typically made primarily for eye protection, but some offer prescription lenses as well. 

What are the best photochromic sunglasses brands?

While Transitions is perhaps the best-known brand of photochromic lenses, plenty of other companies also sell photochromic glasses in a variety of styles and with trendy frames. Some top-rated types are offered by the following brands:

  • Ray-Ban — Ray-Ban’s Evolve photochromic lenses come in all kinds of styles, from square frames to aviators and everything in between. You can also choose from a variety of lens colors that change when exposed to UV rays. Some of their glasses even come with technology that blocks out blue light, so you can protect your eyes from the glare of your digital screens. You can get these sunglasses with prescription or non-prescription lenses. 

  • Oliver Peoples — One of the most trendy sunglasses and eyeglasses brands around, Oliver Peoples offer photochromic sunglasses in a few different styles that change colors depending on the sunlight. Their popular Benedict photochromic sunglasses feature a gradient lens that goes from gold to chrome-amber or from silver to chrome-sapphire. These are mainly worn as sunglasses only, not prescription lenses. 

  • Oakley — Oakley sells a range of photochromic sunglasses in several different styles, including polarized photochromic sunglasses and photochromic sunglasses with an iridium lens coating that increases contrast. This is a particularly good brand for cyclists and other athletes who need wrap-around glasses that will stay put during activities. You can get prescription lenses with your Oakley sunglasses, but due to their sporty style, you may prefer regular sunglasses for other occasions.

  • Wiley X — Some of the photochromic sunglasses by Wiley X would serve as great motorcycle goggles to wear day and night. The lenses of their WX Gravity glasses, for example, keep dust and debris out of your eyes while riding and seamlessly transition from day to night. These are also available with prescription lenses.

  • Bolle — Bolle has a wide array of photochromic sunglasses that are specifically geared toward outdoor sports, such as biking and golfing. This brand is distinguished by its photochromic snow goggles, uniquely protective standouts in the industry that come in different colors to suit different weather conditions. While some photochromic technology doesn’t work as well in low temperatures, Bolle’s goggles will protect your vision on even the coldest days. 

The Bolle Vortex photochromic sunglasses for cyclists are some of the best-reviewed cycling glasses available. This brand is at the forefront when it comes to using photochromic technology in sports sunglasses. 

  • Bobster — This company is dedicated to producing quality eyewear for extreme sports, and offers some photochromic sunglasses options that are especially ideal for cycling. The Bobster Fat Boy photochromic sunglasses come in a range of colors, including clear glasses that transition to dark gray, and stay on your face like goggles while you’re cycling. You can order these with a prescription as well.

  • Julbo REACTIV photochromic sunglasses by Julbo come in a variety of styles and colors; some also have polarized lenses. Julbo  uses this technology in its snow goggles as well — these are similar to Bolle’s selection, but with a larger variety of lens types to choose from. 

  • Tifosi — Tifosi’s photochromic sunglasses are designed for cycling and running, and come with many tint options, including gray, brown and red.

Are photochromic sunglasses worth it?

A number of factors come into play when you’re trying to decide if photochromic sunglasses are right for you, including convenience, cost and how much time you spend in the sun — not to mention which types of activities you like to do outdoors.

Ultimately, paying more for this technology can help people who wear prescription eyeglasses avoid the hassle of changing their glasses when they move between inside and outside. Photochromic lenses can also help those who want to protect their eyes while engaging in biking and outdoor sports, including snow sports, which require a lot of eye protection. 

No matter what you decide, be sure to be wearing some kind of UV protection whenever you’re in sunny conditions. 

And talk to your eye doctor — they can provide more insight on the eyewear that would best meet your needs.

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