Sunglasses buying guide

What kind of sunglasses should you look for to protect you from the harsh Australian sun?
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01 .Introduction


Which pair of sunglasses will best protect your eyes from the harsh Australian sun?

While most of us know how important sunscreen and hats are for UV protection outdoors, the experts CHOICE spoke to say a decent pair of sunglasses is just as critical. 

There is no shortage of options when it comes to sunglasses. You can buy expensive designer shades or pick up a cheap pair at your local market stall. You can also purchase them in a retail fashion store, the chemist or even a service station.

So just how important are sunglasses to your health and what do you need to look for?

For more information about optical, see General health.

Protecting your eyes

Dr Ian Olver, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, says we should protect our eyes just as much as we protect our skin. “Sunglasses are important because of the exposure to UV we have in Australia.”

Repeated exposure to UV radiation can cause a number of eye problems, including serious damage such as cataracts, pterygiums (overgrowth of tissue from the white of the eye onto the cornea), solar keratopathy (cloudiness of the cornea), cancer of the conjunctiva and skin cancer of the eyelids.

 “You can develop melanomas on the surface of the eye, and one of the most sensitive places, skin-wise, is around the eyelids – we treat a lot of people with skin cancers around the eyes,” says Dr Bill Glasson, president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO).

What to look for

Designer frames can cost upwards of $200, but you don’t need to spend a week’s salary for a pair of shades that will protect your eyes from glare and, most importantly, UV rays.

Olver says that once a product meets the standard and has a lens category of 2, preferably 3, price makes no difference. “It doesn’t matter if the glasses cost $40 or $400 – it’s the same protection.”

All our experts also say that wraparound styles are the safest option as they offer more UV protection at the sides of the face.

According to the ACCC, all sunglasses sold in Australia must be tested and labelled according to the Australian/New Zealand standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 Sunglasses and Fashion Spectacles. The regulator says it regularly looks at the products covered by mandatory standards and the bans it administers, and monitors compliance using a combination of visual assessment and testing. So far in 2012 the ACCC has undertaken two recalls of product lines that did not meet the standard.

However, for the average shopper searching for a pair of sunglasses with the right level of protection, the vast array on offer can be very confusing.

Did you know?

The dark tint on sunglasses has nothing to do with UV protection. Many fashion spectacles have dark-tinted lenses that may cut down on glare, but won’t provide enough UV protection.

Shopping around

CHOICE spent one morning at a large shopping centre looking at a variety of sunglasses priced from $25 to more than $300. While there were plenty of styles to choose from, what was difficult to navigate were the variations in labelling. Some sunglasses had swing tags marked with the Australian standard, lens category number and a description of what that category is for, as well as the name of manufacturer or supplier, as the standard requires. In other stores, however, the glasses only carried a sticker or tag with the lens category. Others had tags indicating the European standard and lens category, while at another store most of the sunglasses for sale had no labels at all.

Olver’s advice is to look for a clearly marked swingtag showing the Australian Standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 and the lens category – “most people should look for something marked lens category 3, which is suitable for most situations”.

Professor Stephen Dain, from the University of NSW School of Optometry and Vision Science who is also the acting chair of the CS-053 Sunglasses Committee for Standards Australia, agrees labelling variations can be difficult for consumers to navigate. He says you should look for a label with the lens category, description of that category and the details of the importer or distributor. He also advises buying sunglasses from well-known names or brands. 

“Buy from a retailer that has a name to defend – a recall is very damaging and usually tends to happen with small retailers who shut up shop quickly and disappear as a result.” (It’s worth noting, however, that the ACCC has conducted recalls.)

Fashion victims

Another trap for consumers is sunglasses that look like sunglasses but are classified under the Australian standard as “fashion spectacles” only. These glasses provide very low sun glare protection and only some UV protection. They carry a lens category of 0 and are not required to be labelled. Lens category 1 glasses are also considered fashion spectacles and also only provide limited sun glare and some UV protection – these are labelled as “not suitable for driving at night”.

 “Fashion spectacles can be deceiving,” argues Glasson. “I think it’s a bit of a loophole as a lot of people don’t know the difference.”

Should kids wear sunglasses too?

The short answer is yes. The experts CHOICE spoke to stressed how important it is to protect children's eyes from the sun with sunglasses as (as soon as you can convince them to keep them on) as UV exposure in childhood is related to skin problems later in life, it's likely to be much the same for eyes


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A five-category classification method identifies sunglasses and fashion spectacles by their performance in certain conditions and suitability for use. Under AS/NZS 1067:2003, sunglasses and fashion spectacles are classified as one of the following:

Lens category 0:  Fashion spectacles
These are not sunglasses, as they have a very low ability to reduce sun glare. They provide limited UV protection.

Lens category 1: Fashion spectacles
Like category 0 lenses, these are not sunglasses; however, they do provide limited sun glare reduction and UV protection. Fashion spectacles with category 1 lenses are not suitable for driving at night.

Lens category 2: Sunglasses 
These sunglasses provide a medium level of sun glare reduction and good UV protection.

Lens category 3: Sunglasses
Similar to category 2, these sunglasses provide a good level of UV protection. Lens category 3 glasses also provide a high level of sun glare reduction.

Lens category 4: Sunglasses
These are special purpose sunglasses that provide a very high level of sun glare reduction and good UV protection. Lens category 4 sunglasses must not be used when driving at any time.

In addition to the five category classifications above, the mandatory standard also covers the following:

Photochromic lenses 
Also known as variable tint lenses, photochromic lenses may not be suitable for night driving, depending on their transmittance properties (i.e. their ability to reduce sun glare and level of UV protection).

Non-conforming lenses
Non-conforming lenses have the ability to alter a person’s colour recognition, and in particular the detection of traffic light colours. In some cases these lenses must not be used when driving.

The experts CHOICE spoke to say sunglasses should be worn when you’re outside most of the time in Australia. 

Here’s a guide to the most critical places and times of the day.

During summer

The level of UV radiation at noon in summer can be more than three times as high as in winter. More importantly, the levels of UVB – the type of UV that causes the most damage – can be as much as 10 times higher (which is why sunburn takes such a short time in summer).

Around noon (1PM during daylight saving)

Seventy per cent of the harmful UVB radiation that is received each day occurs within three hours either side of this time.

On the beach and on the water

There are usually few buildings or structures to block the sun or sky, so people are exposed to direct and scattered radiation from the whole sky as well as reflections from water.

High-altitude skiing

Solar UV radiation increases with altitude, and at 2000m can be as much as 30% higher than at sea level. The high reflectivity of snow worsens the problem, so that the UV radiation dose to the eye can be quite large.

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