Thursday, July 10, 2003

All shades are not the same

Even cheap sunglasses offer protection, but buyers should open their eyes about such things as tint, fit and UV ratings

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Ready for the sun (clockwise, from left): Carly Conlon 14, of Blue Ash; Lisa Murphy, 14, of Blue Ash; Julie Sanchez, 15, of Symmes Township; and Lauren Tatum, 14, of Symmes Township each found something to like in their sunglasses.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
Americans spend billions - note the "b" - on non-prescription sunglasses every year.

With prices ranging from less than a dollar to a few hundred bucks for high-end designer-labels, that adds up to a lot of shades: More than 95 million pairs in 2002, according to industry figures.

Even sunglasses sold at the neighborhood dollar store offer protection against ultraviolet (UV) light, experts say, but remember this the next time you're eyeing the bargain bin: You get what you pay for.

Consumers need to check lens quality and overall construction as well as UV coating to make sure they've got it made in the shade this summer.

Rating the low-cost shades

We asked technicians at the Mason LensCrafters to evaluate six pairs of cheap sunglasses ($2 to $12.99 at local retailers) and tell us what they found.

Among the results:

• All of the sunglasses - even the $2 pairs - offered UV protection. But one of the $2 pairs had a UV rating of only 8, meaning it allowed 8 percent of UV light to enter the eye. The rest all had UV ratings of 1, meaning they allowed only 1 percent of UV light to enter the eye.

"You need to read the label and know what it means," says Debbie Jewell, general manager of the store. A label that says a lens offers 100 percent UV protection really means it blocks at least 98 percent of UV light.

• Clubbing styles favored by fashion-conscious teens and tweens offer UV protection, but the lens tints are often too light (think lavender, light blue or pale pink) to keep customers from having to squint in bright light.

• The UV coating on most inexpensive sunglasses is sprayed on, not baked into the lens. That means it can chip, flake or even peel off as the sunglasses are dropped or exposed to things like sea air or cleaning solutions.

• There's a reason cheap sunglasses are so cheap: Our testers found defects in lenses (bubbles and other flaws that can distort vision), rough plastic frames, lenses that could shatter and lenses that didn't fit in frames.

• Sunglasses are a great fashion accessory (at $2, most of us can afford a pair to match every swimsuit), but buying one good pair might be a better investment than buying three or four pairs every summer because the cheapies keep breaking.

• Most cheap sunglasses can't be adjusted, so if the frames need to be tightened, it's time to buy a new pair or live with sunglasses that hover at mid-nose.

Protection from sun

Everyone knows sun exposure causes permanent skin damage, eventually leading to wrinkles, discolorations and, in the worst cases, cancer.

The sun can do just as much damage to the eyes, says Dr. John Weiner, a Mason optometrist.

Weiner advises all his patients to wear sunglasses because he sees the results of not wearing them every day as he conducts eye exams.

Melanoma of the eye is rare, but it's on the increase, especially among white men over 40. A study released last month from the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary found a 300 percent increase among white men in conjunctival melanoma from 1979 to 1999.

More common are pinguecula, "little balls of toughened conjunctival tissue" that form in response to sun exposure. The conjunctiva is the membrane that covers the inner eyelid and the surface of the eyeball.

Sunlight exposure can also cause tissue growths on the cornea called pterygia that can actually block vision. "They can be removed, but typically grow back," Weiner says.

Both types of growths are more common among people who live close to the equator or at higher altitudes, where sunlight exposure tends to be more intense.

Cataracts, or opacity of the lens of the eye that can block vision, are also related to long-term exposure to sun, Weiner says. "They're very common. I tell my patients that if we lived to be 200, we'd all have cataracts."

Welders sometimes suffer inflammation of the cornea (photo keratitis) caused by flashes or sparks from blowtorches.

Americans love their sunglasses: Last year, we spent $2.1 billion for 95.3 million pairs of non-prescription, or plano, sunglasses, says Henry Lane, research chair for the Sunglass Association of America and president of Dioptics, a California sunglasses manufacturer.

"In general, the '90s were some very strong and aggressive growth years. Only in the last 2-21/2 years, have sales slowed to about even," he says.

Improved technology has driven much of that growth, Lane says. Lenses and frames are made of lighter weight, more durable material.

Many of those pairs are specialized, Lane says.

Plenty of options

There are still plenty of all-purpose pairs available, but consumers are opting for sunglasses designed for specific activities, such as driving or sports, Lane says.

And polarized lenses are very big right now as consumers look for ways to cut down glare. "If you're around pavement, water, white sand or snow and there's a lot of reflected light coming off that, or off the windshield of the car in front of you, you need a polarized lens to eliminate that glare," Lane says.

And many sunglasses wearers own more than one or two pairs.

"Those who do buy sunglasses tend to buy multiple pairs, not necessarily at one time. But they'll buy a pair and if they lose it or it breaks, they go back and buy another pair," Lane says.

Made in the shade

What to look for in the perfect pair of sunglasses:

UV ratings: Look for a pair marked as having 100 percent UV protection. UV radiation, the invisible radiation from the sun, can damage the surface and structures of the eyes.

Tint: In general, the darker the better. Tint and UV protection are two separate issues; even sunglasses with pale pink lenses offer UV protection, but they won't shield your eyes from bright light or glare. In general, if you can see your pupils through the sunglass lenses, the tint is too light.

Color: For general use, most experts like gray lenses. Brown is good if you need high contrast (driving, some sports) and green keeps colors true. Blue lenses tend to accentuate glare, so they should be avoided.

Glare protection: Polarized lenses protect against glare, which is important if you're driving, swimming, boating or hanging out on the beach.

Construction: Are the frames adjustable? Are the lenses shatter-proof? Do the lenses fit in the frame, and are there any flaws in the lenses? Inexpensive shouldn't equal "poor quality," experts say.

Little eyes: Don't forget that children should also wear sunglasses, along with all the other sun protection: sun block, a hat, protective clothing, etc.

Sources: Opticians Association of America; American Academy of Ophthalmology; Prevent Blindness America.


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