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What’s the Difference Between Polarized & Nonpolarized Sunglasses?

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A smiling woman wearing a pair of polarized sunglasses

When you think of sunglasses, the first thing that probably comes to mind is stylish eyewear that keeps the sun out of your eyes—and you’d be right. But with polarization technology, sunglasses do more than keep your eyes shaded.

Getting regular eye exams is only part of taking eye health seriously. When we work, we wear protective eyewear. If there is a problem with our eyes, we wear prescription glasses to prevent further issues. Why would protecting our eyes from the sun be any different?

Aside from enabling us to drive or perform outdoor activities safely, polarized sunglasses also protect our eyes from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Different UV Rays

To understand how the difference between polarized and nonpolarized sunglasses affects us, we need to look at what they protect us from. According to the CDC, there are three main types of UV rays.

  • Ultraviolet A (UVA): This is the weakest of the three rays. But it poses the most consistent risk to us because the ozone layer doesn’t absorb any of it.
  • Ultraviolet B (UVB): Unlike UVA, the ozone layer absorbs some of the UVB rays. So, it’s still dangerous. But the earth’s atmosphere helps us out.
  • Ultraviolet C (UVC): The strongest of the three UV rays, UVC would damage us most. However, the atmosphere and ozone layer completely absorb it. Unless you’re in space, you won’t have to worry about UVC.

What Can UV Rays Do to Your Eyes

Looking directly at the sun will damage your eyes with or without sunglasses. But even being outside behind sunglasses, your eyes can sustain damage if the glasses don’t protect against UV rays. The following are several ways that harmful radiation can damage your eyes:

  • Corneal damage
  • Macular degeneration
  • Cataracts
  • Growths on your eye (cancerous and noncancerous)

If you haven’t always protected your eyes, some of these conditions may start without noticeable symptoms. A diagnosis from an optometrist goes a long way in correcting problems before they go too far.

A woman wearing sunglasses with her arm around a man wearing sunglasses

Nonpolarized Sunglasses

When we refer to nonpolarized sunglasses, we are simply talking about a pair of glasses with tinted lenses. Outside of the lenses possibly having a prescription, that’s it. Many of these types of sunglasses offer little to no UV protection.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a pair of nonpolarized sunglasses, they enable us to see clearly while driving on a sunny day. They’re typically cheaper than polarized options and are often more durable than a treated lens.

Polarized Sunglasses

The lenses of polarized sunglasses don’t look different at a glance. However, if you were to switch back and forth with a pair of nonpolarized sunglasses, the difference would be evident right away.

In addition to the protection you get from harmful UV rays, the primary benefit of wearing polarized sunglasses is glare reduction. 

The lenses in polarized eyewear contain a filter that absorbs reflected light waves and only allows direct light to pass through the lens. By not allowing the reflected light in, there is no glare. But the color, depth, and clarity in your view are preserved.

For example, wearing sunglasses around the water helps keep the reflecting sunlight from hurting your eyes. But there is still a blinding glare off the water.

A polarized lens will minimize or eliminate this glare. As a result, you’ll be able to see past the water’s surface. A spare pair of polarized sunglasses is part of every avid fisherman’s kit.

How Do I Know My Sunglasses are Polarized?

You won’t be able to tell if your sunglasses are polarized by looking at the lens. And even if the tag said polarized when you bought them, it’s worth testing them to ensure they actually have polarized lenses.

The first test you can do is hold them up while looking at a reflective surface; there shouldn’t be any reflection. But if you rotate the glasses 90°, the reflection should appear. Another way you can check is by looking at an LED screen. If they are polarized, as you rotate them, the screen will grow dark to almost being blacked out.

If you bought polarized sunglasses and discovered that they are not polarized, it’s not necessarily that the manufacturer lied. There are undoubtedly different qualities of polarized sunglasses. That’s why it’s important to purchase sunglasses from a reputable source.

When Should I Wear Polarized Sunglasses?

Polarized sunglasses will be ideal for almost any outdoor activity in the sun. But a few activities stand out as reaping the most benefit from a polarized lens.

  • Driving: A polarized lens will enable you to see more comfortably and prevent the harsh glare that sometimes bounces off the road.
  • Boating: When you’re operating a boat, it’s essential to be able to “read” the waves. Polarized sunglasses take away the glare of the water, which defines the waves.
  • Fishing: In the same vein as boating, polarized sunglasses will make fishing a more comfortable and rewarding experience on a sunny day.
  • Other outdoor activities: Many other outdoor activities like biking, hiking, or jogging will also benefit from a polarized lens.

When Should I Not Wear Polarized Sunglasses

Although there are many applications where polarized sunglasses are superior to their counterparts, they have limitations. Some of the most common scenarios where polarized lenses are not the answer are:

  • Driving: In most cases, a polarized lens performs much better. However, suppose you’re driving in snowy and icy conditions. In that case, there’s a chance you won’t be able to see icy patches on the road. So, nonpolarized sunglasses would be safer.
  • Winter sports: In the case of skiing or snowboarding, a nonpolarized lens is typically better. Icy spots on the hill may not be visible with polarized sunglasses, and that’s a serious hazard.
  • Screen use: Polarized sunglasses do not make screen use easy because the screen may appear blacked out depending on the angle. If you’re spending a lot of time on the computer or using a phone, talk to a professional about blue light filtering glasses instead.
  • Operating equipment: This is a toss-up because there are benefits to polarized sunglasses while operating heavy equipment. But because they are typically darker than other sunglasses, this poses potential hazards in some cases when using dangerous equipment.

Keep Your Eyes Safe With Polarized Sunglasses

Whether you’re looking for prescription sunglasses or just some stylish, polarized sunglasses, the helpful staff at Arena Eye Works can get you sorted. Contact us today or stop by so we can answer any questions you have.

Written by Dr. Santarlas, OD

Dr. Santarlas received his undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina in marine geochemistry. He spent three years in the US Naval Reserves and then completed a postgraduate year at the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia studying satellite remote sensing. He subsequently obtained his doctorate in Optometry from the University of Missouri – St. Louis in 2002. Upon graduation, he started a private practice in rural Illinois where he practiced solo and in group retail. He moved to San Diego in 2008 and became involved with the UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center. Here he specialized in pediatrics and community Ophthalmology.
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