Are the sunglasses you're wearing safe? Here's what to look out for

An optometrist sounds in on UV ratings, caring for your lenses and more.

An optometrist sounds in on UV ratings, caring for your lenses and more

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

For many of us, shopping for eyewear mostly involves thinking about face shape, materials and optical trends. But when you're trying on sunglasses, virtually or in-store, it's important to make sure that the pair you're considering comes with basic safety features, too. 

We asked Dr. Danielle Gordon, an optometrist and the owner of Sphere Optometry in Calgary, for advice on what to look for when it comes to UV ratings, lens coatings and more. Here are her shopping recommendations and tips for keeping your glasses in top shape. 

Look for UV 400 or 100% UV protection 

Whether you're shopping at an optical store or browsing the racks at the drugstore, the first thing to look for is a sticker or tag that indicates the glasses will block UV rays. "A lot of questions I get in my exam room are about the colour and the tint," says Dr. Gordon. "The most important thing is UV protection, as opposed to the darkness of the tint, which is more of a personal preference."

Most pairs should have some sort of label indicating the UV protection; if that information isn't listed or is unclear, consider moving on to a different style. "[It] might say '100% UV-blocking capability' or it might list the nanometres of the wavelength beyond which they block — 400 nanometres, for example," says Dr. Gordon. "It's good to check for that because nowadays most sunglasses in the market will have to have that certification." Both labels mean essentially the same thing, with a UV 400-rated lens also blocking nearly 100% of UV rays, including UVA and UVB rays.

Why is this important? A good pair of sunglasses can help protect your eyes and the skin around them. "Certain eye conditions, like macular degeneration, tend to have a link or an association with sun exposure. And so can things like cataracts," says Dr. Gordon. "So keep your sunglasses on for skin health reasons but [also for] your eyes."

Go bigger for optimum sun protection

"Another great thing to think about in terms of protection is the size of your sunglasses," says Dr. Gordon. "The skin around our eyes is quite delicate … and there can be lots of reflection from the sun's rays and [they] can enter from a variety of angles if your sunglasses aren't big enough." Design and fit are important considerations, but all things being equal, you may want to keep in mind that a bigger pair of glasses will offer additional sun protection. 

Consider polarized and tinted lenses 

UVA and UVB protection is key, says Dr. Gordon. But there are other lens features and finishes that can improve your experience of wearing sunglasses. For example: polarized lenses don't offer any additional UV protection, but they "can reduce glare coming off of reflective surfaces like snow and water, and even roads," Dr. Gordon says. Similarly, some tinted lenses can be great for sports like golf or baseball because they can make some colours look more vibrant and "create increased contrast," which "can help you to be more effective in your sport."

Take care of any coatings on your lenses

Just like with eyeglasses, sunglasses can be purchased with a number of different lens coatings that help minimize glare and reflections, and protect against scratching. These coatings are "quite delicate" and you want to avoid scraping or damaging them with heat, because they can't be reapplied or repaired without replacing the lens itself, says Dr. Gordon. 

To protect the lenses of your glasses as well as any coatings, Dr. Gordon advises against leaving sunglasses out in direct heat — for example, on a radiator in the winter or on your dashboard on a hot and sunny day. And keep your lenses protected as much as possible. "If you want to extend the life of your lenses, always put them in their case, always clean them with a soft, non-abrasive cloth and use your glasses cleaner," says Dr. Gordon. "And never put them down on the countertop lens-down. That'll scratch them in a hurry." 

Remember to wear your sunglasses all year round, even on cloudy days 

Just like it's important to wear sunscreen even in the winter, your eyes can use the sun protection even in overcast weather and during the cooler months. "There can be a high UV rating … even when the day is cloudy," says Dr. Gordon. "In the wintertime, there's reflections and glare off of snow, and that's UV rays bouncing back at us from different angles." Similarly, when you're on the water — on a boat or canoe, for example — wearing UV 400 sunglasses can protect your eyes from the same type of reflection and glare.

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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