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I learned two important things about sunglasses while writing this article:
- Polarization is not really what you should be looking for in sunglasses if you’re trying to protect your eyes from damage.
- There are actually affordable sunglasses that offer UV protection — and look good.
Since I see polarization advertised as a perk more frequently than UV protection, I always assumed that polarized sunglasses would benefit my long-term eye health, and therefore it was worth it to pay a little more for the Ray-Bans with the little P after the logo.
I also assumed that well-made sunglasses were ridiculously expensive, so I would have to cough up the big bucks if I didn’t want to leave my eyes unprotected or have lopsided glasses that might fall off my face altogether. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.
What is polarization?
“I think most people assume that a polarized lens will probably protect from UV,” said Dr. Shivani Kamat, an ophthalmologist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
But that’s not the case. Polarization is mainly for reducing glare — essentially, polarized sunglasses block a certain direction of light, such as light rays reflecting off of a horizontal surface like water. “That’s important because it helps to decrease the amount of glare that’s coming through the lens and into your eyes,” Kamat said.
This means polarized sunglasses are helpful when driving and when you’re near snow, bodies of water, and other reflective surfaces. However, UV protection is a completely different thing.
Why are UV rays dangerous for your eyes?
Ultraviolet, or UV, light is a form of electromagnetic radiation emitted naturally by the sun and some artificial sources, like tanning beds. The most common source of UV radiation is sunlight, which produces UVA, UVB, and UVC rays.
These rays harm your eyes by inducing something called oxidative stress in tissue, Kamat said. While a little bit of UV exposure one day probably won’t cause any serious damage, cumulative exposure over time can increase the risk of certain eye diseases and conditions, including cataracts, macular degeneration, cancer, and even growths on the surface of the eye.
“There are certain times of day or certain places where it’s a little bit more intense,” she said. UV rays tend to be strongest around the middle of the day, from roughly 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as well as at higher altitudes and near bodies of water. But they can harm you even when none of those conditions are present. “In general, it’s important to remember: don’t be fooled by thinking It’s cloudy outside or It’s winter now or something,” Kamat said. “UV rays come through no matter what.”
Some medications may make your eyes more sensitive to the sun as well, including antibiotics in the tetracycline family. If you are on any of those medications at any point, she advises taking extra precautions.
Americans get about 25% of their lifetime sun exposure before the age of 18, so it’s essential to protect children’s eyesight as well.
How to protect your eyes from sun damage
According to Kamat, when you’re shopping for sunglasses, you should be looking for “UV400” or “100% UVA/UVB blocking” on the label to give you the best protection.
“As long as that’s listed, the brand doesn’t matter too much, and it really shouldn’t cost more,” she said.
In addition to wearing UV-blocking sunglasses, she suggests trying to keep kids and yourself out of direct sunlight in the middle of the day and adding in a hat for some extra protection. If you’re looking for some stylish shades that’ll keep your eyes safe without breaking the bank, these are all good options. Of course, what I think looks stylish may not be what you prefer, but with multiple frame styles on this list, I hope you’ll find something that suits you.
I was genuinely shocked that this cute pair of sunglasses was also polarized and had 100% UVA/UVB protection. In fact, that’s true for most Privé Revaux sunglasses, but these ones in particular caught my eye. Recently, the larger, more old-school glamorous shades have been piquing my interest. Maybe I’ve just had enough of the tiny sunglasses that have been in style for some time, or maybe after everything I learned in writing this article, I know a larger pair may offer me more protection. Regardless, these are cool and under $50 and give you everything you need to block UV rays in a sturdy pair of sunglasses.
Promising review: “These are my 3rd pair of Prive sunglasses. They’re durable (I’m clumsy, so this is important), stylish, and affordable. 10’s across the board!” —Brenda V. via Privé Revaux
What else to consider: These lenses are scratch resistant, block blue light, and have an extra anti-glare coating on top of the polarization. You can also get them with prescription lenses. Of course, as with any glasses, they won’t be right for every face shape.
Best for: people with diamond, heart, or oval-shaped faces, according to Privé Revaux.
You can buy the New Yorker from Privé Revaux for around $40.
My first thought going into my product search was that I would have to include a pair of Quay sunglasses. They’re the brand I knew best for making affordable, trendy, and high-quality sunglasses. They’re also quite attractive, and you can customize most frames to your particular needs — including polarization, UV-blocking, or prescriptions.
Promising review: “I am usually a Ray Ban girl all the way, but wanted something different. Love the lenses on these and such a great deal given that they are polarized! Cute style and the size is perfect for me! Highly recommend!” —Snochic34 via Nordstrom
What else to consider: Quay is known for its oversized frames, but these ones are slightly smaller than its typical offerings, which I think makes them more suitable for a wider variety of face shapes and sizes.
Best for: wearers with a sophisticated, laid-back attitude and medium-sized faces, according to the brand.
You can buy Quay Noosa Cat Eye Sunglasses from Nordstrom for around $55.
I love to have a funky pair of shades in my rotation for festive occasions or when I just feel like spicing things up, but that shouldn’t mean I have to sacrifice my eye health. That’s where Crap Eyewear comes in. I’m slightly obsessed with my Supa Phreeks with teal frames and orange lenses, and now I’m equally obsessed with this version with marbled cream frames and plum lenses. They’re not cheap but not wildly expensive, and you get great quality for the price with 100% UVA/UVB protection.
Promising review: “I absolutely LOVE these shades. They compliment and put together any and every outfit. I always carry them in my bag, no matter the weather, plus they’re very durable. Definitely worth the purchase!” —Nafissa M. via Crap Eyewear
What else to consider: If you’re looking for everyday sunglasses, these might not be the way to go. However, if you want a statement-making pair of shades in your lineup that will still give you the comfort and protection you’re looking for, they’re a great buy.
Best for: medium-wide faces seeking some protective yet funky frames.
You can buy The Supa Phreek by Crap Eyewear from Parade for around $79.
Le Specs is another brand I’ve been seeing everywhere, even on celebs, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn it sells glasses in an attainable price range. The Outta Love frames are another shape that I’ve been loving, and I genuinely think they look good on most faces. They’re small without being too small, oval without being too oval, and trendy without being annoyingly trendy. All Le Specs sunglasses look expensive and chic, and these ones come in multiple colors, all with 100% UV protection.
Promising review: “Love these 90s throwback shades! They are well-made and sturdy. The sky looks extra blue when wearing them. :)” —Rachael M.H. via Le Specs
What else to consider: Some reviewers note that these are too small for their faces, so the style may work best on smaller faces.
Best for: trendy (albeit smaller) faces who want UV protection with style.
You can buy Outta Love by Le Specs from Net-a-Porter for around $59.
I know sporty sunglasses like these may look over-the-top, but they’re necessary for certain activities, and I also think they look pretty cool with certain fits. Sure, they’re good for cycling, running, skiing, and any extreme sport where you need shades that fit comfortably, protect against 100% of UV rays, reduce glare, and won’t be ruined by saltwater. But who says you can’t wear them when you’re going for that après-ski vibe any old day of the week? I don’t really cycle, and I’ve only skied once in my life, but for this price I might grab them in a couple colors just to have on hand.
Promising review: “Wanted to find a decent pair of sunglasses that were comfortable on my big head, did what they were supposed to do, but wanted to get them at a great price.
I’ve lost way too many expensive glasses while surfing, so figured I’d give these a try. Now I don’t want to surf in them because I don’t want to lose these either. Now I wear them on my motorcycle and dirt bike. Big enough to keep things out of my face, small enough to be comfortable.” —Stephanie
What else to consider: Other activities that reviewers love these for include fishing, kayaking, biking, and driving. They appreciate that they’re adjustable, so they can feel comfortable on any face, and that they’re great value for the price.
Best for: any sporty faces trying to protect their eyes and see clearly during outdoor activities.
You can buy Extremus Matterhorn Polarized Sports Sunglasses from Amazon for around $17.
These classic sunglasses may be the best deal on this list. They’re cheap, get thousands of rave reviews, and come in a wide variety of frame and lens colors. They are also polarized and block 100% of UVA, UVB, and UVC rays — not to mention that they’re unisex and suitable for any face shape. Kind of a no-brainer.
Promising review: “These sunglasses are amazing!! I love the way they fit my face. They are super lightweight. They block the sun wonderfully! I would 10/10 recommend these to anyone!” —Meranda Taylor
What else to consider: It’s hard for me to believe that the quality is amazing at such a low price, but most reviewers are satisfied. Plus, if you do break or lose them, they’re affordable enough to grab another pair.
Best for: anyone looking for a protective pair of shades that they don’t have to be afraid of losing.
You can buy MeetSun Polarized Sunglasses from Amazon for around $11.
I know they’re not for everyone, but I love a cat eye, so I had to include another pair here. These are a bestseller from Foster Grant, which makes tons of affordable, well-made, stylish sunnies. The lenses are scratch- and impact-resistant, filter blue light, and protect against 100% of UVA-UVB rays.
Promising review: “I purchased these sunglasses to be used as reading and sunglasses. I love the style, price and quality. I wish there were more color options.” —Marilyn via Foster Grant
What else to consider: The cat-eye shape is definitely not for everyone, but if you try them on and feel comfortable enough to pull them off, I say go for it. They’re fun and you’ll probably get lots of compliments. Foster Grant also donates a pair of reading glasses to people in underserved communities around the world for every pair you buy.
Best for: those who are interested in dipping their toe into the pool of trendy sunglasses without making too much of an investment.
You can buy Foster Grant Ivy Sunglasses from Foster Grant for around $22.
I’ve purchased sunglasses from Madewell before and was satisfied with the look and quality. The brand makes lots of classic frames that look good on almost everyone and have all of those protective features you’re looking for without paying an outrageous price. These Ashcroft frames are a slightly trendy but somehow also timeless style, and they offer 100% UVA/UVB protection.
Promising review: “I bought these in ‘Transparent Multi.’ They're my new go-to casual sunglasses. They look cute, they feel comfortable, they seem durable, and they work great. I like that they're not too oversized and the lenses aren’t too dark, but are dark enough for a bright, sunny day.” —ASHLJ via Madewell
What else to consider: Reviewers say that these fit true to size, which is likely good for an average-size head.
Best for: someone who wants a pair of everyday shades that look good with everything and protect their eyes.
You can buy Madewell Ashcroft Sunglasses from Madewell for around $60.
It can be hard to get kids to wear sunglasses, especially if they’re uncomfortable or the little ones don’t understand why they need them. One way to make it happen is to choose a pair they love to wear, and I think these sunglasses will do the trick. The fun, multicolored, heart-shaped lenses will make your kid look cool while giving them that UV protection to keep their little eyes safe.
Promising review: “Really cute glasses for kids and not going to break the bank if they get broke or lost.” —EJJ via Target
What else to consider: At such a low price, you don’t have to worry about your kids losing or breaking these. They’re protective yet not so expensive that you can’t grab another pair if chaos ensues at the pool and they get crushed.
Best for: little faces who love some extra attention.
You can buy Art Class Kids’ Heart Sunglasses from Target for around $6.