Made in the Shade(s): The 411 on sunglasses

In some parts of the Islamic world, women are required to wear burqa’s. Now, this is not a political column so I am approaching this solely from a beauty angle. I believe they are the secret to everlasting youth. Give me a burqa and I will remain ageless forever. I mean, who really can tell how old you are — or if you need to lose a few inches on your hips and thighs — if you are covered from head to toe. Add a pair of wraparound sunglasses and you’ll take off another twenty years. (This sure beats my other suggestion – giving all your friends and business contacts a candle. Since everyone looks infinitely better in candlelight, you’ll finally be able to go out in the daylight!)

Well, being that a burqa is not part of my religious traditions, let’s just talk about the sunglasses. Truth be told, I would wear them morning and night if they didn’t so diminish my vision after dusk. My aim is not to look like an out-of-work actor, hoping to be recognized. Rather, it’s to hide the fact that I could probably use an eye lift —not to mention to actually be able to see since I need to always wear prescription glasses, sun or otherwise. But with endless choices available, how do you know which are the best to benefit both your eyes and your budget?

While status conscious fashionistas might spend hundreds to get the latest look from Tom Ford, Gucci or Prada, others buy expensive glasses simply because they are worried that cheaper shades might not give them adequate sun protection. So I asked Dr. Mirwat Sami, a Houston-based Board-certified Ophthalmologist specializing in Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, to shed some light on what to look for when selecting a pair of tinted spectacles — and why.

Dr. Sami explains that, “Excessive exposure to UV light from sand or pavement reflections can burn the eye’s surface. Think of it like sunburn on the skin, and as the damage accumulates over the years, you can do some real harm to your eyesight without even knowing or feeling it.” Indeed, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends quality sunglasses as a preventative, provided they screen out 99% to 100% of UV light. So the questions is, are designer sunglasses superior when it comes to providing eye protection?

The following are eight suggestions from Dr. Sami to help ensure that you are making the right choice from every angle.

1) Just like you wouldn’t go out on a bright day without any sunscreen, it’s equally important to look for UVA and UVB protection in your sunglasses, as well. That means a tag or label that says your lenses block 99% to 100% of UVA and UVB radiation. The label should read either “UV 400” or “100% UV protection.” Don’t be fooled if the glasses merely say “UV protective. That’s not sufficient, and in fact, may mean they’re no good at all.

2) For the best eye protection, get a prescription pair. The FDA regulates sunglasses to the extent that manufacturers who sell over-the-counter, nonprescription pairs can only claim they reduce eye strain and eye fatigue due to glare. Other labels that claim UV protection need proof and proper labeling.

3) Many cheap shades have inferior optical quality. Good lenses require careful manufacturing control that includes “decentering,” or tapering the lenses. Inexpensive plastic lenses will strain your eyes. You might not notice it at first, but after a while, subtle fatigue or even severe eyestrain and headaches will set in.

4) Designer lenses may not be designed for optimum value. Looking for proper eye protection, it’s easy to go too far in the other direction and dish out $300 or more for overpriced shades. Approach fancy designer brands with caution, especially if the company is better known for handbags than eyewear. You’re probably paying more for the name and the logo than for the quality of the lens and glasses.

5) The tint of the lens has nothing to do with the UV protection of the glasses. A clear lens with no tint and 100% UV protection is better for your eyes than dark, heavily tinted sunglasses without UV protection. Dark lenses without adequate UV protection are actually worse for your eyes than not wearing glasses at all, because the dark tint causes your pupils to become dilated, thus exposing your eyes to more harmful UV light.

6) Ideally, your sunglasses should cover the sides of your eyes to prevent stray light from entering. Wraparound lenses are best, but if that’s not an appealing style, look for close-fitting glasses with wide lenses. Avoid models with small lenses, such as John Lennon -style sunglasses.

7) “If you already have a favorite pair but don’t know what kind of protection they offer, ask your local eyewear store if they have a UV meter. This device can measure the UV protection of your glasses and help you determine whether you should buy a new pair. Most opticians have such a meter and can do this very easily,”

8) “Even if you wear contact lenses that offer UV protection, you’re not in the clear. Contact lenses sit on the cornea in the center of your eyes and so can’t protect the surrounding white area (the conjunctiva) and skin.”

At the end of the day, while some may not want to part with their designer glasses, for those who are budget conscious, it all comes down to how they are made, not the label. Dr. Sami quotes the chair of ophthalmology at Tufts University as saying that, “For about $40 you can get a pair that offers 100% protection against ultra-violet rays. If you spend upwards of $70 you should be able to get a pair with decent quality polarizing lenses that cut out glare. Beyond that, the medical benefits tail off pretty fast.”

Lastly consider this: At 4% interest, $200 a year for sunglasses over 50 years adds up to $30,000. And just think how many burqa’s that could buy!