Are High-Priced Sunglasses Worth the Price?

What’s the deal with brand name sunglasses, and do they offer something that imitation pairs don’t? Sunglasses, essentially tinted pieces of acrylic or glass that are set into frames, are easy to take for granted—that is, until you misplace an expensive pair.

It’s just how frequently expensive sunglasses seem to get lost that’s prompted many people to say “To heck with high-priced sunglasses!” and stick with cheap pairs instead. An understandable reaction considering that brand name sunglasses can cost hundreds of dollars.

For example, some Prada and Bulgari pairs will run you nearly $500, and that's if you don't need prescription lenses. Even more moderate design labels like Ray-Ban or REVO can cost a couple of hundred bucks.

Even if you haven’t lost your favorite pair, when you compare those prices with the wide variety of $5-20 sunglasses styles that you can pick up at budget-minded stores such as Target, Old Navy, or even in a convenience market, many shoppers find themselves wondering whether or not higher-priced pairs of sunglasses are worth the cost.

Before we determine whether or not brand name sunglasses are better than budget-friendly alternatives, let’s define what any pair of sunglasses should offer.

Are Sunglasses Good for More Than Fashion?

Whether they’re prescription, polarized, or just a stylish pair, sunglasses are supposed to do more than compliment your face shape and help you look cool. According to the National Eye Institute, wearing sunglasses is an important part of eye protection.

Just like keeping your skin healthy requires regular application of an SPF product, your eyes—and the delicate skin surrounding them—also need to be shaded from the sun’s rays.

Protecting your eyes from UVA and UVB rays doesn’t just help lessen your chances of developing crow’s feet, but also helps to prevent other eye conditions, including:

  • Cataracts, which are a clouding of the eye’s lens that can blur vision. According to the NEI, an estimated 20 percent of cataracts are caused by extended UV exposure.
  • Macular degeneration, damage to the retina that destroys central vision, is the leading cause of blindness in the US. 
  • Pterygium, a layer of tissue that grows over the white of the eye, can alter the curve of your eyeball and cause astigmatism. This can affect your ability to perceive depth and distances.

Keeping your eyes healthy is important to enjoying a lifetime of good vision. However, some medications can also make your eyes more sensitive to the light, impairing your ability to perform certain activities, such as driving. These include antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and heart medications.

Eye sensitivity to sunlight isn’t just an annoyance, but an indicator that your eyes are even more susceptible to damage by exposure to UVA and UVB rays. If you are experiencing sensitivity to the sun that affects your sight, sunglasses are important for immediate relief and prevention of long-term damage.

What’s the Purpose of Different Tints and Coatings on Sunglasses?

Early pairs of sunglasses were simply tinted glass or plastic lenses that were designed to reduce brightness. Darker was considered better, as a deeper tint meant that sunglasses could shade out more light.

As we started to understand more about the damaging nature of the sun’s rays, technology developed to help sunglasses screen out UV radiation. While tint is still the top factor that affects how helpful a pair of sunglasses are in protecting your eyes, there are now multiple different types of tinted coatings that can be applied, and even combined, to help your vision and protect long-term eye health:

  • UVA and UVB coatings reduce the amount of damaging rays that reach your eyes. According to the website How Products Are Made, a company doesn’t have to label the percentage of UV rays that their shades deflect. However, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has established guidelines for the percentage protection that different categories of lenses must offer from UV rays. According to their standards, cosmetic lenses must block 70 percent of UVB rays, general purpose must block 95 percent of UVB and most UVA rays, and special purpose must block 99% of UVB rays.
  • Polarizing filters help to reduce glare by blocking rays of light that are reflecting off of flat surfaces, such as a lake or glass, or the hood of a car.
  • Mirrored glasses are made by applying a thin, reflective film to the lens. This coating offers brightness protection by only allowing 50 percent of light that reaches the lens surface through. (The remainder is reflected off the lenses.) 
  • Light directed at the back of your head can also reach your eyes by bouncing off the interior of a lens. Some sunglasses offer an anti-reflective coating on the interior of the lens to stop this from occurring. 

Beyond the ability to filter out the sun’s rays, some sunglasses offer scratch-resistant coatings that help protect your lenses from damage due to daily wear and tear.

Does the Color of Your Sunglasses Lenses Make a Difference?

Sunglasses are typically tinted to be shades of gray or brown with organic dyes and metallic oxide pigments. The purpose of these tints is to help to absorb or reflect different frequencies of light. What they shouldn’t do is excessively distort colors.

Why not choose to see the world through rose-tinted lenses? Unnaturally colored sunglasses may make it difficult to discern different colors—an important ability when you’re driving.

Our research showed that gray lenses are preferable, as they produce the least distortion for people with average vision. However, brown or amber shades screen out blue light (which is part of the lower frequency of UV rays) the best—but at the cost of some color distortion. Blue and purple lenses are the least desirable, as they create the most color distortion.

How Are Brand Name Sunglasses Different From Cheapie Versions?

Keeping the health benefits of sporting sunglasses in mind, there are four main things that a pair should do for you:

  1. Provide protection from UV rays. Some models can eliminate up to 99 percent.
  2. Provide protection from intense light. When the eye receives too much light, it naturally closes the iris. Once it has closed the iris as far as it can, the next step is squinting. If that doesn’t do the trick, the result is potential damage to your retina.
  3. Provide protection from glare. Certain surfaces, such as water, can reflect a great deal of light, and the bright spots can be distracting or can hide objects. 
  4. Eliminate specific frequencies of light. Certain frequencies of light can blur vision, and others can enhance contrast. 

The difference in how well a pair of sunglasses performs comes down to a sum of their parts; namely, the quality of lenses and coatings. With that in mind, our research shows that the old adage “you get what you pay for,” applies to sunglasses:

Higher-end sunglasses generally offer glass lenses, as opposed to plastic.

Much like camera lenses (which any amateur photographer can tell you don’t come cheap), high-quality sunglasses feature lenses made of distortion-free glass. Optical accuracy is important, since your eyewear should help aid vision, not distort shapes and lines.

Additionally, borosilicate glass used in high-end sunglass lenses is made to be both scratch and impact resistant, by tempering it with various chemical treatments.

Alternately, inexpensive plastic sunglasses aren’t manufactured with concern for optical perfection, and they may contain flaws which will distort your vision.

Name brands typically offer lenses with UV protection.

According to the NEI, there is no way to tell from the color or darkness of the lens how well it will screen out UV light. Similarly, there is little relationship between the price of glasses and their ability to block UV light.

While a designer logo on a pair of frames doesn’t necessarily mean that they offer better protection, brand name glasses typically offer higher percentages of protection from both UVA and UVB rays. (Look for pairs that block 99 percent of UVA and UVB rays.)

Additionally, some take it a step further with polarized lenses—which can also notch up the price.

What about budget sunglasses? It turns out that, minus UV protection, those shades can actually do more harm than good. That’s because when cheap sunglasses block some light, it causes your iris to open and allow more light in. This lets in more of the UV light as well, increasing the damage UV light can cause to the retina and risking your long-term eye health.

So, How Can You Tell If a Pair Of Sunglasses Are High Quality?

Better materials cost more, but that doesn’t mean that every pair of sunglasses with a designer logo offers the best quality for your buck.

Sure, some brands of sunglasses are synonymous with quality, including Ray-Ban, Revo, Oakley, Bolle, and Serengeti to name a few. However, when you’re shopping, remember that big-name fashion brands might offer more style than sun protection.

So, how can you tell if a pair of sunglasses are high quality?

1. First, check the lens material. As we mentioned above, glass lenses are preferable, as they won’t warp and distort your vision like plastic versions.

Tints and coatings are a matter of personal preference, but accurate vision should be a gold standard. To test a pair of sunglasses to see if they distort shapes, lines, or colors, simply hold them at arm's length and look into the distance. Compare the way that colors appear through the lenses to their unobstructed shade.

2. Next, focus on a straight line in the distance. Slowly move the lenses across the line. If the lens causes the line to sway or bend, the lenses are optically imperfect. For best results, look through the outer edges of the lens as well as the center.

3. Finally, look for a sticker denoting the level of UV protection. While disclosing the percentage of UV rays any pair blocks is voluntary, brands aren’t allowed to fib. Remember, quality sunglasses can block up to 99 percent of UV rays—if you’re paying for a more expensive pair, don’t settle for anything less.

Bottom Line? A Good Pair Of Sunglasses Is Worth the Cost—Designer Logos Are Person Preference

Yes, a great pair of sunglasses can compliment your face shape. However, a pair that fits well is just as important as sunscreen when it comes to protecting your long-term health. Make sure that lenses cover your full eye area. If you’re outdoors for long periods, consider a wraparound style for extra peripheral protection.

Bottom line on brand name sunglasses versus budget pairs? A designer’s logo isn’t necessary, but quality lenses and UV protection is a must. Meaning that when you settle for a cheap pair of sunglasses, you give up all the potential benefits and, as we mentioned above, can even put your eyes at greater risk.

Related: Your Guide to Avoiding Sunburn During Summer Vacation

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.