Most people are aware that the sun can burn and damage your skin, but many people don’t realise that our eyes are even more sensitive to damage by ultraviolet radiation (UV). Accumulated UV exposure can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration, cancer, pterygium (a fleshy growth on the cornea), and extreme exposure can cause photokeratitis, which gives you sore, red, swollen and watery eyes. UV radiation is invisible, and can still be high on days when it seems cloudy.
Sunglasses can prevent sun damage to your eyes, improve your vision and make a fashion statement at the same time.
Sunglasses should not be too small, you need a good size of lens to block the light, and frames that are a bit more wraparound or have wider sides will block light that comes in from the sides. When combined with a broad-brimmed hat you can minimise your exposure to UV radiation and slow the age-related effects that it causes.
The darkness of your sunglasses is not related at all to their UV protection, and is purely your preference. The same applies to the colour of the lens, although more neutral shades of grey or green-grey will give you more natural vision, some people prefer brown tints as they can improve the way you see contrast. Strongly coloured lenses, especially very orangey browns or blues, will affect your colour vision, and will often be marked as not suitable for use while driving, because you may not see traffic lights correctly, or may even not see people if they are wearing a colour your sunglasses block out.
Polarised lenses are comfortable to wear because they cut out reflected glare, meaning you don’t see that sparkling shine bouncing off water, snow, or cement. The polarisation doesn’t affect UV protection, but can reduce squinting, so unless you need to see that sparkle (if you’re a fly-fisher, a mogul skier or a pilot you’ll want to avoid polarised sunnies), then I usually recommend polarised lenses for extra comfort. Photochomic lenses that go dark in the sunlight also give full UV protection, and can be a great option for your everyday glasses.
Always make sure the sunglasses you buy have a tag saying they meet the Australian sunglass standard. All sunglasses sold in Australia must meet the Australia/New Zealand standard, and will be clearly marked as to their category of protection. Categories 0 and 1 are fashion spectacles only and are not sunglasses, categories 2 and 3 are general sunglasses, and category 4 are extra dark for specialised use and not suitable for driving. The price of the sunglasses does not affect the UV protection, cheap sunglasses are just fine from a protection point of view, they only differ in the other bells and whistles! Children should have sunglasses too, UV damage builds up over your whole life, the sooner your eyes are protected, the better.
Lastly, prescription sunglasses – absolutely yes! You can get prescription lenses in polarised, photochromic, tinted, multifocals, bifocals, reading or distance glasses, high index (thinner) lenses, rimless frames, shatterproof safety lenses, all the usual options. You will need to check with your optometrist to make sure of the frame type suitable for your lenses, but prescription driving glasses mean you don’t have to choose between clear but glary, or tinted but blurry, they are absolutely a great idea, ask about them at your next eye exam.
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