Cheap vs. Expensive Sunglasses: Is it Worth it to Spend More or OK to Spend Less?

Irina Shayk for Linda Farrow SS15

Clearing up the shade.


Above photo, Irina Shayk for Linda Farrow SS15

There’s nothing quite like throwing on the perfect pair of shades to make you feel like you can take on the world. But if you’re like most people, the process of sunglass shopping can be an overwhelming, confusing and contradictorily unclear experience. When it comes to eye protection, is it really necessary to spend more or can you get away with an under $50.00 pair? We cleared up the shade with insight from Kari St. Louis, certified optician for Sunglass Warehouse, and eye expert and LASIK pioneer Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, so the next time you shop for shades you see things at 20/20.

First, let’s talk about how a few key elements affect (or don’t affect) the quality of your sunnies:

1. UV Protection

“In simplest terms, ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun are harmful and can cause damage to the eyes. Cheaper sunglasses might not have the best UV protection,” advises Dr. Boxer Wachler.

“This should absolutely be on every pair of sunglasses you own. If someone makes sunglasses without it, these are of the lowest quality and should only be worn inside – or at night!” says St. Louis. “I would recommend straying from any pair that do not have at least 99% UVA/UVB protection.”

Cue Corey Hart.

2. Frame Material

“Higher quality frames will be made with better plastics like acetate or nickel-free metals such as titanium or stainless steel. This is probably the biggest difference you will feel when trying on a low price pair vs designer,” explains St. Louis.

Be aware of your allergies when sunglass shopping, as Dr. Boxer Wachler adds: “Frames made with low-grade plastics, nickel and other metals can absolutely affect a person with specific allergies.”

3. Lens Material

“Polycarbonate is best to use – it’s shatter resistant, comes with automatic UV protection inside the lens, and also minimizes lens thickness in prescription sunglasses,” advises Dr. Boxer Wachler.

St. Louis agrees, “High-quality lenses will be made out of polycarbonate – a type of high impact plastic that is naturally scratch resistant and UVA/UVB protected. It does offer a clarity hard to match in any other type of material. Low-quality lenses will be made out of a material called acrylic. It is mass produced and therefore cheaper.”

[Related: Everything You Need to Pack For Your Ultimate Beach Weekend Getaway]

4. Lens Tints, Coatings & Technology

We all hear about polarized sunglasses, but what exactly does that mean? Dr. Boxer Wachler explains, “Polarization helps minimize glare of the sun so that vision quality is much sharper.” 

Want to check if your shades are polarized? You can do so with this quick test.

Adds St. Louis, “You need to make sure polarized sunglasses have UVA/UVB protection, too. It’s not always a guarantee, although the best ones will have both. Some people, like pilots, can’t wear polarized lenses because they make LCD screens difficult to see. In that case having a solid or gradient tint would work great. Gradients are used for style but can also work wonders for people who struggle to read in their sunglasses. When you look through the bottom of the lens, it will almost be clear. There are transition lenses too, which are usually only found on prescription quality glasses – this way people don’t have to switch back and forth between regular glasses and sunglasses. Transitions are naturally UVA/UVB protected.”

In sum however, “None of these really have to do with quality as much as they do with personal preference,” says. St. Louis.

When it comes to eye protection, here are the top 2 things you should be on the lookout for:

“First and foremost you want to make sure the glasses are 99% or higher UVA/UVB protected,” St. Louis advises. “Without that, wearing your sunglasses would be pointless. Although sunnies are fun and fashionable, the function is the most important aspect of them. UVA/UVB rays cause irreversible damage to your eyes leading to premature cataracts, macular degeneration, and many other serious conditions.”

She continues, “Next, make sure you pick a style that blocks out the sun from all angles. Sport, oversized, and full coverage styles are the best. Smaller lenses that allow light behind them will not be the best for protecting your eyes.”

The verdict?

Both cheap and expensive sunglasses can have similar levels of UV protection, lens tints, coatings and technology. It’s OK to spend less, just make sure you’ve done your homework to find out about the percentage of UV coverage, frame materials in case you have allergies, and lens technology in the event you’re looking for something specific. Spending more on your sunnies likely means you’re paying for higher quality frames, a more durable lens and of course, the designer name.

As St. Louis aptly states, “It all comes down to shopping smart by being informed before making a purchase.”

In the market for a new pair of shades? Here are a few UV-approved picks to consider, ranging in price from $12.95 to $250.00.

Click any image to launch gallery view; shop details below.

[Related: 18 Red, White & Blue Beach Buys to Keep You in the Star Spangled Spirit All Summer Long]

Row 1, from left:

Sunglass Warehouse Holden Polarized Sunglasses with 99% UVA/UVB Protection ($12.95)

Established Eyewear Amos Vert Sunglasses with 100% UV Protection ($250.00)

Proof Eyewear Donner Skate Zebra Polarized Aviators with 100% UVA/UVB Protection (were $120.00, now on sale for $85.00)

Row 2, from left:

Dot Dash Headspace Sunglasses in Teal with 100% UV Protection ($30.00)

Under Armour Hi-Roll Sunglasses in Shiny Silver with 100% UVA/UVB/UVC Protection ($159.99)

Zenni Optical Premium Round Sunglasses in Black/Gold with full UV Protection Coating (from $39.95)

Row 3, from left:

WeWOOD Crux Iroko Crema Polarized Sunglasses with 100% UV Protection ($120.00)

Sunglass Warehouse Ivy Cat Eye Sunglasses with 99% UVA/UVB Protection ($12.95)

Wild Soul Matte Black Raccoon Sunglasses with 100% UV Protection ($135.00)