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I learned two important things about sunglasses while writing this article:
Since I see polarization advertised as a perk more frequently than UV protection, I always assumed that polarized sunglasses would benefit my long-term eye health, and therefore it was worth it to pay a little more for the Ray-Bans with the little P after the logo.
I also assumed that well-made sunglasses were ridiculously expensive, so I would have to cough up the big bucks if I didn’t want to leave my eyes unprotected or have lopsided glasses that might fall off my face altogether. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.
What is polarization?
“I think most people assume that a polarized lens will probably protect from UV,” said Dr. Shivani Kamat, an ophthalmologist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
But that’s not the case. Polarization is mainly for reducing glare — essentially, polarized sunglasses block a certain direction of light, such as light rays reflecting off of a horizontal surface like water. “That’s important because it helps to decrease the amount of glare that’s coming through the lens and into your eyes,” Kamat said.
This means polarized sunglasses are helpful when driving and when you’re near snow, bodies of water, and other reflective surfaces. However, UV protection is a completely different thing.
Why are UV rays dangerous for your eyes?
Ultraviolet, or UV, light is a form of electromagnetic radiation emitted naturally by the sun and some artificial sources, like tanning beds. The most common source of UV radiation is sunlight, which produces UVA, UVB, and UVC rays.
These rays harm your eyes by inducing something called oxidative stress in tissue, Kamat said. While a little bit of UV exposure one day probably won’t cause any serious damage, cumulative exposure over time can increase the risk of certain eye diseases and conditions, including cataracts, macular degeneration, cancer, and even growths on the surface of the eye.
“There are certain times of day or certain places where it’s a little bit more intense,” she said. UV rays tend to be strongest around the middle of the day, from roughly 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as well as at higher altitudes and near bodies of water. But they can harm you even when none of those conditions are present. “In general, it’s important to remember: don’t be fooled by thinking It’s cloudy outside or It’s winter now or something,” Kamat said. “UV rays come through no matter what.”
Some medications may make your eyes more sensitive to the sun as well, including antibiotics in the tetracycline family. If you are on any of those medications at any point, she advises taking extra precautions.
Americans get about 25% of their lifetime sun exposure before the age of 18, so it’s essential to protect children’s eyesight as well.
How to protect your eyes from sun damage
According to Kamat, when you’re shopping for sunglasses, you should be looking for “UV400” or “100% UVA/UVB blocking” on the label to give you the best protection.
“As long as that’s listed, the brand doesn’t matter too much, and it really shouldn’t cost more,” she said.
In addition to wearing UV-blocking sunglasses, she suggests trying to keep kids and yourself out of direct sunlight in the middle of the day and adding in a hat for some extra protection. If you’re looking for some stylish shades that’ll keep your eyes safe without breaking the bank, these are all good options. Of course, what I think looks stylish may not be what you prefer, but with multiple frame styles on this list, I hope you’ll find something that suits you.