Cheap sunnies versus expensive sunnies

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
We don't just need sunglasses to look cool. UV light in sunshine harms our skin but it can also seriously damage our eyes. Sunglasses protect us with an anti-UV coating, which blocks out the harmful rays. Do expensive makes put cheapo glasses in the shade?

Tammy Novak is a real estate agent in Helensvale on the Gold Coast. No self-respecting girl would dream of hitting the beach there without an eye-catching pair of designer shades on her face. And Tammy doesn't blink at paying 300 bucks or more.

"I think the more you pay the better the quality, she says.

Is fashion at the top of her list? "Honestly? Probably on the middle of my list, slightly climbing to the higher side," Tammy answers.

Reporter Dr Andrew Rochford is a cheapskate himself and wonders if his $7.50 sunglasses are going to give him as much protection from the sun as Tammy's expensive pair.

To get the definitive answer, we're going to send both pairs off to a lab for testing.

The test

First, Andrew wants to see if a lifetime of wearing cheap shades versus expensive ones has made any difference to the health of his eyes.

Tammy and Andrew head to an optometrist Simon Hurwood to get their eyes checked.

Simon examines Andrew's eyes. He's checking for eye cancer, cataracts and any signs of sun damage. And scarily he's found something.

"The first thing I notice is you do actually have a small pterygium on this eye," Simon says. "A pterygium is a fleshy growth that is most commonly on the inside of the white of the eye. It does in some cases grow across the coloured part of the eye and yours has started to do that. They're mostly caused by exposure to UV light."

Pterygiums occur when UV light changes our eyes' cells. A callus forms that can spread, causing discomfort and blurred vision.

How worried should Andrew be?

"I think everyone should be concerned that it indicates there has been some sun damage," says Simon. "Even though we do see them very commonly in Queensland, it still indicates that people should be wearing sunglasses all of the time and doing things to ensure their eyes stay nice and comfortable."

That's the cheap sunnies put to the test; time to see what the expensive ones come up with.

Tammy's eyes are examined and it turns out Andrew's not the only one with early signs of damage.

"So Tammy, the main thing I saw there today was you in fact have pterygiums on both eyes," says Simon. "They're only small but what you need to try and do because you're only young is stop them growing any further."

Andrew says that the fact Tammy was born and raised in Queensland while he grew up in Sydney might account for her having two pterygiums to his one. It shows just how vulnerable we are to sun damage.

Simon's advice is to wear sunglasses every time you go outdoors, even if it's cloudy. A wide-brimmed hat also helps protect your eyes. Also, use drops to keep eyes from getting irritated as that can speed up the growth of a pterygium.

You can't reverse the sun damage but you can slow its effects down.

The results

To find out whether Andrew's servo sunnies offer as much protection against UV light as Tammy's designer brand pair, they were sent to the Melbourne lab of the Australian Radiation, Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.

Senior research scientist Dr Peter Gies and his colleagues tested both pairs on a spectrophotometer to measure how much UV and visible light is penetrating the lens.

"What we would like to see when we're doing the testing is that no ultra violet is getting through and that a reasonable quantity of visible light is getting through so that's what your eye reacts to and let's you see what's happening," says Dr Gies.

"We looked at both sunglasses — the inexpensive and the expensive. It turns out that the UV protection was 100 percent in both cases," says Dr Gies.

Andrew's cheap sunnies offered just as much protection against harmful UV light as Tammy's expensive ones. It just goes to show you don't need to spend big bucks to protect your eyesight.

That's because Australia's the only country where all sunglasses must comply with a minimum UV standard, called AS 1067. If it's not on the label — don't buy them.

The test also did show that Tammy's designer specs did give better protection against glare.

"Most people buy sunglasses that they like the look of and that they feel comfortable with — to look at and to wear," says Dr Gies. "Now with an expensive pair of sunglasses, of course, they may very well last longer because they've got better frames and that sort of thing."


What should we look for when we choose a pair of sunnies?

  1. Check the label to make sure it carries an Australian standard tag.
  2. Check the frames fit by looking to both sides and up and down to see how much light is coming in. Wraparound glasses block the most UV light.
  3. Check the lens for distortion. Hold them at arm's length and look at the lines of a door; they should stay straight when you move them around.
  4. Check for comfort and style — if you don't like them you won't wear them.

The key message is wear your sunnies all the time. The sooner you start, the healthier your eyes will be.

"In my opinion I think you should start wearing them as early as you can get the kids to leave them on, basically," says Dr Gies.

At Helensvale's Jubilee primary school on the Gold Coast they've taken that to heart. A local store called Bright Eyes donated 4000 pairs of sunglasses and it's school rules to wear them outside.

How's it going down with the kids? We love wearing sunglasses," the kids shout.

Fast facts

What colour tint should your sunnies have? Grey cuts glare so it's good for driving. Not so yellow — it affects your colour perception but is perfect for skiing. Pink's pretty but it won't help with the glare.

Sunglasses are often a fashion accessory but they can also have a permanent effect on your looks. Glare makes you squint and squinting gives you crow's feet. Not wearing sunglasses can permanently damage your looks because in bright light, your natural reaction is to squint to protect your eyes.

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