Buying a pair of nonprescription sunglasses used to be a simple task. You'd slip into a dimestore on the run and pick up something inexpensive, or, if you chose to spend a few minutes and a few pennies more, you might find a pair that would last through August.
Now, with heightened public concern about damaging sunlight, expanded technology in plastics and a deluge of designer labels -- and prices -- on everything from sweatbands to sneakers, shopping for sunglasses is turning into a monumental chore.
"Do I really need to spend $80 in a 'sunglasses' specialty store before heading to the beach this summer?" you might ask. "Or even $30 at a department store for a designer look?"
The answer is no. In fact, you can get plenty of sun protection, as well as a fashionable look -- if not a fashion label -- without sacrificing your wallet at all. But it helps to go shopping armed with a little knowledge.
Basically, when you buy sunglasses you're buying frames, lenses and the way they're put together. For the most part, it's the quality of the frames -- and any designer names they sport -- that will determine the price you pay. But the lenses, by far, are most important to your vision and sun protection.
Even with nonprescription lenses, there are important points to consider, says Brad Bowers of Bowers and Snyder opticians. The most obvious is how much glare protection they provide.
Bowers suggests a quick method for determining whether the glasses you select resist enough glare: Look at yourself in a mirror with the glasses on. If you can see your eyes looking back at you, "you're getting only a fashion tint," he says. "They're probably not dark enough."
Color of the lens also affects glare. The best tints for resisting glare are gray, brown and dark green, says Bowers. He calls bright colors like pink, blue, light green and yellow "horrible," noting "you probably will have a headache at the end of a day on the beach because they just intensify the glare."
Mirrored lenses are another acceptable form of cutting out light and as long as the mirrored coating does not flake or chip easily off the lens it probably is doing an adequate job.
A second important factor to consider when examining lenses is ultraviolet light. While it's generally believed that overexposure to UV rays can make a person susceptible to cataracts, the jury is still out on just how much UV protection one needs in sunglasses.
"It probably depends on how much sun you are exposed to," says Bowers. The average person driving back and forth to work daily may not need 100 percent UV protection, he says. "But if you're spending two weeks on the beach, yes, you should get the ultimate protection."
"Most sunglasses have a good deal of UV protection," says Bowers, regardless of cost. In fact, you may find that even the most inexpensive glasses in discount stores today carry labels advertising UV protection.
Indeed in a simple test of a dozen different pairs of sunglasses Bowers conducted for this article, all but three pairs registered 100 percent ultraviolet protection, including a half-dozen purchased for $5 or less. And the three less-than-100-percent pairs scored at least 70 percent protection on the photometer, a machine that measures ultraviolet light. The randomly selected glasses all had the recommended gray, brown or dark green lenses and ranged from $80 designer models to $1 discount store purchases.
Many designer sunglasses today boast of CR-39 lenses, meaning they are made of the same molded and ground plastic as prescription glasses. But such precision isn't necessary for a distortion-free image, says Bowers.
The simplest test for a consumer to get an idea of the quality of a lens, he says, is to turn the glasses over and look at the front of them. Hold them down in front of you, and catching a reflection of light from the ceiling for instance, rock them back and forth. If you get a distortion of image, that is if the fluorescent lights overhead change shape, "you probably have a cheap piece of plastic," rather than quality material.
So what if you manage to find a hot-looking pair of glasses that rTC pass the lens quality tests and look just like the Ray-Ban "Cats" your friend paid $55 for? Does that mean you beat the system?
Maybe. But remember, the greater part of the cost of sunglasses is for the frames. Most designer glasses are made of high-quality molded plastic or metal and are put together to last. That's not to say you can't get decent frames inexpensively. It does mean the designer frames can usually serve as an example of good construction.
Take Liz Claiborne's $45 faux tortoise shell frames. Not only do they feel comfortable, but they are made of a molded plastic that has an attractive sheen that probably won't wear off easily.
Good frames also have a metal reinforcement strip running down the center of the earpiece, says Bowers, and their hinges are probably made of stainless steel or another non-corrosive material. Beware of brittle plastic that threatens to crack under extreme conditions, he warns. It's a common culprit in premature sunglass failure.
"The interesting thing is," says Bowers, who every day helps people select frames for their prescription glasses, "even when you don't tell them [who makes what frames] people are still drawn to the designer lines. They're just usually prettier and of better quality, and people recognize that."