Choosing the Best Sunglasses to Protect Your Eyes

It is important to choose the best sunglasses to protect your eyes from the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. As much as style matters, you need to select sunglasses with both the appropriate UV protection and frame to safeguard your eyes from all directions.

This article explains why sunglasses are so important to your eye health and which features you should be looking for when shopping for protective eyewear. It also describes when and where sunglasses are a "must" and other ways to protect your eyes and vision.

Young man wearing earbud and cell phone arm band backlit against the sunshine
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Protecting Against UV Radiation

As we get older, our eyes undergo physiological changes that can cause vision problems such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma, and cataracts. UV light is one of the key factors that can contribute to the onset, progression, and severity of these eye diseases.

UV light, which comes mainly from the sun and is not visible to the eye, consists of three bands of radiation:

  • UVA rays have the longest wavelengths as measure in nanometers (nm). The rays, ranging from 315 nm to 400 nm, are able to penetrate the ozone layer of the atmosphere and reach deeper layers of skin and eye tissues.
  • UVB rays have the second longest wavelengths. The rays, ranging from 280 nm to 315 nm, are largely absorbed by the ozone layer, but some are able to reach and penetrate the outer layer of the skin and eyes.
  • UVC rays have the shortest wavelengths. The rays, ranging from 100 nm to 280 nm, are completely absorbed by the ozone layer and don't reach the body.

Since UVA and UVB rays carry more energy than visible light, they can do greater cumulative damage to the eyes. Cataracts (a condition that causes cloudiness of the lens) is one such example thought to be caused by years of exposure to bright sunlight.

Sunglasses designed to block 100% of UVA and UVB rays can help protect your eyes from UV damage.

Light or Dark Tint?

General wisdom would suggest that dark sunglasses offer better UV protection than light sunglasses, but that isn't necessarily so.

While very dark lenses might seem the rational choice, without the appropriate UV filters, they only block visible bands of light, not UV light.

In fact, ordinary dark lenses can actually promote eye damage by causing the pupil of your eye to get larger and let in more light, exposing it to greater amounts of UV radiation.

Ultimately, the degree of darkness or the color or tint of your lenses is not what protects your eyes. Rather, it is the ability of the lenses to block 100% of UVA and UVB radiation. Even clear lenses have the capability to do so if they are made of material or coatings that deliver UV400 protection.

What Does UV400 Mean?

UV400 refers to a lens's ability to block out nearly 100% of all UVA and UVB rays, which can have wavelengths of up to 400 nanometers.

Polarized vs. Nonpolarized

Many people assume that polarized lenses are the same thing as UV400 lenses, but that actually isn't so. Here is the difference:

  • UV400 lenses afford the eyes the highest level of protection against non-visible UVA and UVB light.
  • Polarized lenses protect against visible light. They use a special film to filter reflected light and reduce glare from smooth surfaces like snow, water, or a hot road.

This shouldn't suggest that polarized lenses aren't useful. By filtering reflected light, you can reduce eye strain and maintain clearer vision while driving, skiing, boating, or engaging in other activities in bright light.

Which to Choose?

UV400 lenses can be polarized or nonpolarized. While polarized lenses tend to be more expensive, they may be useful if you are sensitive to glare or have lighter color eyes (which are generally more sensitive to bright light).

Other Features

When shopping for sunglasses, it is best to consider them as an investment in your eye health. This doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune, but you shouldn't skimp on protective features that extend beyond the lenses themselves.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), the best sunglasses offer the following four features:

  • 100% UV protection: Look for a UV400 rating on the label.
  • High optical-quality lenses: This means lenses that are free of manufacturing defects like bubbles or waves that can refract and scatter light.
  • Scratch-resistant lenses: Scratches not only allow UV rays to seep through but can also "bounce" visible light into the eye and cause eye strain.
  • A larger frame: While coin-shaped glasses can definitely make a fashion statement, opt for larger frames that offer more coverage from all angles. Wraparound sunglasses popular with skiers and other sports enthusiasts are arguably one of the better options.

In addition, pick sunglasses that are comfortable and fit your face properly, because you'll be inclined to wear them more.

When to Wear

The AAO recommends wearing sunglasses anytime you are outdoors, particularly in the summer when the level of UV radiation is triple that of other times of the year. In addition, you should wear sunglasses whenever on the water or in the snow when light rays are reflected.

Older adults with cataracts and those who are light-sensitive may find that they need to wear sunglasses more than they used to. This is because light passing through aging corneas and lenses is scattered to a greater degree. This scattering effect can be alleviated with sunglasses with polarized lenses.

Post-Cataract Surgery

During cataract surgery, a new intraocular lens (IOL) is inserted to replace your old cloudy lens. Most intraocular lenses are designed today to absorb UV light.

However, if you had cataract surgery some time ago, your intraocular lens may not be designed to the current standard. As such, you should continue to wear sunglasses that offer UV400 protection.

If unsure, speak with your ophthalmologist. Or, better yet, continue wearing UV400 lenses that can at the very least protect the untreated eye.

AAO Recommendation

The AAO recommends wearing protective sunglasses after cataract surgery even for people who have UV-absorbing intraocular lenses.

Other Ways to Protect Your Eyes

Sunglasses are valuable to the health of your eyes, but there are other forms of eye protection you should also embrace:

  • Wear a hat: A visor or wide-brimmed hat can help shade the eyes, particularly when the sun is at its brightest or highest.
  • Schedule outings wisely: Avoid going outside when the sun is at its brightest and most intense (such as between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. in the summer).
  • Stop smoking: Cigarette smoke can cause the narrowing of blood vessels in the eye and cause inflammation that can speed the onset or progression of AMD, glaucoma, and cataracts.
  • Don't let shade fool you: Even if it's an overcast day, UVA and some UVB light can still penetrate the eyes. If outdoors for a long period of time, keep your shades on. This includes the winter months.

A Word From Verywell

Practicing good eye health includes wearing the appropriate eyewear to avoid eye strain, defend against UV light, and slow the progression of aging-related eye diseases. But arguably the most important facet of good eye health is getting regular eye check-ups.

According to the AAO, comprehensive eye exams should be conducted at least every two years for people ages 19 to 64 and yearly for those 65 and over. People at risk of severe eye disease should be seen at least annually.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Delcourt, Cécile et al. Lifetime Exposure to Ambient Ultraviolet Radiation and the Risk for Cataract Extraction and Age-Related Macular Degeneration: The Alienor StudyInvest. Ophthalmol. Vis. Sci. 2014;55(11):7619-7627. doi:10.1167/iovs.14-14471

  3. Linetsky M, Raghavan CT, Johar K, et al. UVA light-excited kynurenines oxidize ascorbate and modify lens proteins through the formation of advanced glycation end products: implications for human lens aging and cataract formationJ Biol Chem. 2014;289(24):17111-17123. doi:10.1074/jbc.M114.554410

  4. Giannos SA, Kraft ER, Lyons LJ, Gupta PK. Spectral Evaluation of Eyeglass Blocking Efficiency of Ultraviolet/High-energy Visible Blue Light for Ocular ProtectionOptom Vis Sci. 2019;96(7):513–522. doi:10.1097/OPX.0000000000001393

  5. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What Are Polarized Lenses For?

  6. American Academy of Ophthalmology. How to pick the best sunglasses to protect your eyes.

  7. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Sunglasses: protection from UV eye damage.

  8. Li X, Kelly D, Nolan JM, Dennison JL, Beatty S. The evidence informing the surgeon's selection of intraocular lens on the basis of light transmittance propertiesEye (Lond). 2017;31(2):258–272. doi:10.1038/eye.2016.266

  9. American Macular Degeneration Foundation. Don't Smoke - It Exacerbates Eye Disease.

Additional Reading
  • Aging and Your Eyes. US National Institute on Aging Public Information Sheet.

  • Natalie Hutchings. Associate Professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo. Interview conducted by phone May 21, 2013.

  • Sunglasses: Protection from UV Eye Damage. American Academy of Ophthalmology Public Information Sheet.

  • Sunglasses. Health Canada Public Information Sheet.

By Sharon Basaraba
Sharon Basaraba is an award-winning reporter and senior scientific communications advisor for Alberta Health Services in Alberta, Canada.