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Not only do your favorite tinted spectacles look great, but they also provide really important protection for your eyes in ways you might not realize.


March 19, 2024

While it's common knowledge that sunscreen helps protects the skin from the sun's harmful rays – check out our blog on sun safety 101 – what you may not realize is that the sun can have serious health effects on your eyes, too. Just like sunscreen helps reflect the sun's rays to keep skin glowing and free of sunburn, those sunglasses you have bouncing around in your car's glove compartment also play a really important role in eye health when you're out in the sun.

woman wearing sunglasses

But what are the risks of spending too much time in the sun without your favorite pair of sunnies? And how do you know that they're actually doing their job? Read on to find out.

The Dark Side of the Sun

What could be better than a day spent lounging by the pool in the summer sun? We can all agree that there's not a whole lot that tops that level of relaxation. And with sunscreen (with an SPF of at least 30, of course) in hand and ice cold beverage at the ready, you are all set for a day in the sun.

Not. So. Fast.

Many people don't realize that the sun can have long-term health impacts on eyes when they're left unprotected. From cataracts to sunburn (yes, your eyes can get burned, too), there are a few important health risks you should be aware of before your next outdoor adventure.


Did you know that your eyes can get sunburned, just like your skin? If you want to get fancy, the term for sunburned eyes is photokeratitis – and it's the inflammation of the cornea, which is the clear covering on the front of the eye. If you've spent a day in the sun without proper eye protection and you notice your eyes are watering, itchy, dry, gritty, or sensitive to light, it's most likely because your eyes are sunburned. Most of the time, photokeratitis isn't serious and typically clears up within a couple of days. If it's really bothersome, try removing your contact lenses and using a cool compress to help relieve bothersome symptoms.

MedExpress Pro Tip: For extra protection, pair your sunglasses with a wide-brimmed hat, which can help protect your eyes (and skin) from ultraviolet (UV) light that streams in from above or around your glasses.


A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye – which is the clear part of the eyeball responsible for focusing light or images on the retina to help us see things clearly. When the lens is clear (no cataract), images we see will be sharp; when the lens is cloudy (a cataract), images will appear to be blurry and difficult to make out.

While many cataracts are caused by age and normal wear and tear of the eyes over time, studies by the National Eye Institute have shown that UV light from the sun can increase the risk of cataracts. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 20 percent of cataracts may be caused by overexposure to UV radiation from sunlight. Go ahead – take this as an excuse to head to the mall to splurge on a new pair of sunglasses.

Macular Degeneration

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss and affects more than 10 million Americans. It's caused by the deterioration of the macula, the central portion of the retina with kind of a big job. The macula is responsible for processing sharp, clear vision. Without it, we wouldn't be able to read, write, drive a car, or recognize faces – yikes! We'll give you a minute to thank your macula for all of its hard work.

Much like cataracts, your risk for macular degeneration increases with age. However, unprotected and prolonged exposure to UV light over time can also increase the risk for macular degeneration.

The Science Behind Sunglasses

man wearing sunglasses while canoeing

Yes, those shades keep you looking hip, but there's so much more to them than style. Their main job is to protect your eyes from the sun's harmful rays. But how? Well, it's all a matter of science.

The best quality sunglasses are made up of multiple elements that work together to protect your vision in the sunlight. We're here to share a few of those elements.

  • UV coating: UV coating is the real hero of this operation and is the most important element of good sunglasses. Just like sunscreen protects your skin from dangerous UV light, UV coating can be added to your plastic lenses to help block harmful rays from causing damage to your eyes. Glasses made from polycarbonate already have UV protection built in, so ask your ophthalmologist about which option makes sense for you.
  • Mirror coating: Mirror coating on sunglasses is the first line of defense in the fight for protecting your eyeballs from UV light. The coating is applied to the front of your lenses and works by reflecting light away from your eyes – just like, you guessed it, a mirror. Not only does this help avoid squinting and eyestrain (and that painful headache as a result), but it also helps filter out the harmful sunlight from reaching your eyes.
  • Anti-reflective (AR) coating: Anti-reflective coating, or AR coating, helps eliminate those pesky reflections and allow for a much clearer image by preventing light from reflecting off the back surface of your sunnies.
  • Polarized lenses: Polarization is all the rage these days – and for good reason. Have you ever been to a lake or ski resort and noticed your eyes are especially strained because of the reflection of light off of the water or snow? That's called polarized light, which causes glare and can reduce visibility. While polarized lenses don't offer protection from those dangerous UV rays, they do help filter out and block reflected light to make driving and other outdoors activities safer.

It's certainly possible to find sunglasses that have all of these important features in one pair, so do a little research on the features certain brands offer in their glasses before your next shopping trip.

Respect the Specks

Some sunglasses do a better job at protecting your eyes than others, and, unfortunately, the pair you got at the drug store seven years ago might not be cutting it anymore. There are a lot of options out there, so how do you know which ones will offer you the most protection? We've got the low-down on what to look for in your next pair.

  • The most important thing to look for in your next pair of sunglasses is that UV protection that we talked about. Opt for the pair that are labeled as having 100 percent UV protection. While UV coating can be added to plastic sunglasses that don't already have 100 percent protection, let's be honest – it's just plain easier to find ones that already offer complete protection. Plus, there are plenty of options in your favorite size and style, we promise.
  • Sometimes, bigger really is better. Go for larger frames that sit comfortably close to your eyes and fit snuggly on your face to reduce the amount of light coming in from the sides, top, and bottom.
  • Contrary to popular belief, darker sunglasses do not necessarily offer better sun protection. It's best to look for lenses that have the same shade of tint throughout. And when it comes to color, it's really up to you. However, the American Optometric Association recommends choosing a pair with a gray tint, which doesn’t distort colors too much.

It's easy to grab the best looking pair of sunglasses off the shelf, but it's important to do your research before you head to the check out. And no matter where your summer takes you this season, don't forget to pack those sunnies to protect your eyes for years to come.

Originally published July 2019. Updated March 2024. 


1 National Eye Institute: Cataracts.  Last updated June 3, 2014. Accessed March 19, 2024.

2 World Health Organization: Ultraviolet radiation (UV). Accessed May 14, 2019.

3 What is Macular Degeneration?  Accessed May 14, 2019.

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