Given our deep, non-negotiable need for sunglasses, there’s particularly good news this year: a downward drift in prices and more features for your money. Credit a hotly competitive market. Of course, had the things doubled in price, we’d still have to buy them. Nature gives us no choice. The human eye is flat incapable of dealing with bright sunshine and its painful and hazardous reflections off the surfaces we play on, whether the Pacific, the Baltoro Glacier, or Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Nearly as compelling is the eternal desire to make a fashion statement with our shades. There’s good news on this front, too. Style and multisport functionality have become one. You can get the right stuff — protection from light and wind, secure fit, visual acuity, color contrast — from any of our picks here and still keep ahead of the fashion police. But such a coveted combination of features continues to cost considerably more than the cheap shades racked at the car wash. Our selections, with excellent optical quality and the ability to cut glare and filter out harsh UV rays, range in price from about $40 to nearly $200.
Narrowing the field
Unless you want an arsenal of sport-specific shades cluttering your dresser-top, go with a pair or two of all-around specs. One-sport wonders such as ski glasses are unrivaled on the slopes, but may be too dark for driving and too heavy for running. Twin-lens sunglasses with versatile lenses and shapes will see you through most conditions and activities, but you’ll need a second pair of eye protectors (namely shields) for high-speed pursuits like cycling and in-line skating. They offer light weight and better coverage against sun and wind. By strictest definition, a shield has a single lens piece, but the lexicon of real life says a shield is any wide-coverage sports eyewear that looks ridiculous away from sports. Think of your bike helmet. You could wear it in a restaurant, sure, but we’d all rather you didn’t.
Block those rays. Regardless of the frame design, insist on lenses that block 100 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, the culprit behind many cataracts, retinal problems, and so-called snow-blindness. Your shades should also block between 75 and 90 percent of visible light. Anything higher will put you in glacier-glasses territory, meaning lenses too dark for everyday wear.
Suit your needs. Some glasses will suit your favorite sports better than others. Being on or near water calls for polarized lenses, which cut glare from flat surfaces, including water and roads. Bright skies and reflective terrain like snow and ice are neutralized with double-gradient mirroring: filters at the top and bottom of the lenses that turn back light trying to enter high and low. If changeable weather or varying terrain is a concern — such as hiking in and out of the woods — consider photochromic lenses, which darken with brightness and lighten up in the shade.
Hues affect views. Regardless of the outer hue, it’s a lens’s base tint — what you see looking through the lens, not at it — that matters most to your eyes. Multiple coatings and mirror treatments, which affect the look of the lens, may also help to cut glare and otherwise enhance the view. But the base tint plays a much larger role in performance. The right choice lets you see more of what you need to see: Amber, yellow, rose, or vermilion lenses turn up contrast and increase depth perception; gray and greenish lenses work well on water and don’t distort hues (call ’em color-neutral); and brown and copper tints enhance contrast without substantially altering colors, either. The latter two are good choices for general use.
Getting wise to a few materials basics will help you sort through options among lenses and frames.
Lenses: Glass or plastic? Thanks to precision grinding and polishing, glass lenses are often optically superior. The world looks brighter and sharper, and glass doesn’t scratch easily. On the other hand, glass lenses are breakable, comparatively heavy, and often more expensive than their plastic counterparts. Hence, nearly shatterproof polycarbonate (aka plastic) lenses are best when more than light and wind may strike the eyes, as in rugby-mates’ elbows, volleyballs, branches, or the ground. Lately, the glass-plastic distinctions have been blurring. Glass lenses are getting lighter, optical quality in plastics is improving, and new coatings make polycarbonate lenses more scratch-resistant.
Frames: Insist on sturdiness. The fanciest of lenses are worthless if they pop out of the frames, the hinges fail, or the temples break. Seek nylon or plasticlike frame composites such as zyl or cellulose, which are light, resilient, and strong. Wire-cored nylon frames can be bent for a more perfect fit. Some thin metal frames are engineered for hard play, but they often have sharper edges that can dig into your skin. I’d wear them more for fashion than action. As for sport shields, nylon is almost always the main frame ingredient. Consider the add-ons, though: Foam brow pads that absorb moisture; gummy, hydrophilic nosepieces for adhesion when sweat builds; and interchangeable lenses so you can swap tints.
Fit and finish
The rage in sunglasses continues to be the wrapped-back style, which follows the eye’s surface curvature and fits into, or just around, the eye socket. The design brings sport-shieldlike light and wind protection into a higher fashion arena, and the close fit also means you can go with relatively small, light lenses. A minor downside: Because wraps employ curved lenses to increase peripheral protection, the view can be distorted along the edges; nor can wrapped lenses readily be ground into prescriptions.
Late 1920s: Bausch & Lomb develops darkened lenses for Army Air Corps fliers, daddies of the Ray-Ban line, which the company introduces commercially in 1937.
1932: Optical inventor Edwin H. Land (who 16 years later would introduce the Polaroid Land camera), deals blow to glare with a polarizing-filter lens.
1969: Wrapped-back sunglasses star in motorcycle flick Easy Rider, first of many film/sunglass synergies, such as Risky Business (1983), The Terminator (1984), and Top Gun (1986).
1986: American Greg LeMond rides neon yellow Oakley Blades sport shield to victory in the Tour de France. Once disparaged as wimpy, shields become de rigeur in the peloton.
|Ultraviolet protection is top priority: Your shades must screen 100% of UVA and UVB rays.Darker doesn’t mean better. Less than 10% visible light transmission is too dark for everyday use.
You might need two sets of shades: a pair for all-around use, and a shield for active-sports protection.
Good ones start around $40. Shell out more for gradient filters, polarization, and fashion statements.
What to look for
- Nylon or composite frames fare best against knocks. Wire-core temples let you adjust for snugness.
- Glass lenses are less likely to scratch, but more likely to shatter.
- The outer tint might be cosmetic; it’s the view from inside that counts.
- With interchangeable lenses, you can shield your eyes even when the sun’s hiding.
- A hydrophilic nosepiece won’t slip when the going gets sweaty.
- A shield’s plastic lens is virtually shatterproof.
- A large lens has the wrap and size to fend off assault from any angle