Some folks know the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., as the birthplace of salt water taffy; others associate it with casino gambling, Monopoly and the Miss America beauty pageant. But the Boardwalk has another claim to fame so copious that it's hard to imagine an America without it --though prior to 1929, the Land of the Free was by and large a land free of shades.
Picture it. No Corey Hart singing/whining about wearing his sunglasses at night. No bearded dudes in ZZ Top advising us to go get some cheap sunglasses. No cruising cops in mirrored specs; no cool lifeguards in hipper-than-thou Ray Bans. But that's just how it was until Sam Foster came along with that first pair of Foster Grants. He started selling them from an Atlantic City Woolworth store in 1929, and by 1930, sunglasses were all the rage.
Fast forward 80 years and the choices for shades become, shall we say, eye-boggling. You can even get sunglasses with a built in audio player. (And why shouldn't ears get equal glam time? They hold the frames up, after all.)
From the dollar store to the chic boutique, sunglasses choices abound. So then: Is cheap a bargain? Do designer lenses do a better job protecting the eye, or showing off for onlookers? And just what are the ABCs of UVA and UVB anyway? You'll have it made in the shade, we promise, after reading this installment of the Savings Experiment.
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT? NOT IF YOUR GLASSES PROTECT YOU
As much as we revere sunglasses for the fashion statements they make, their most crucial function is to protect our eyes. Get this straight: No matter how cheap (or expensive) the glasses, you're cheating yourself if they don't shield you from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light.
The sun may look innocent enough, especially on a bright day when temperatures hover in the 70s. But it's also dishing out light waves invisible to our eyes: UVA (long-wave solar rays) and UVB (short-wave solar rays, usually responsible for sunburn).
Imagine going out on a bright day without any sunscreen, then staying outside for hours. Sounds foolish, right? Well, that's exactly what you'd do to your eyes if you overlook UVA or UVB protection in your sunglasses. And guess what? Those cute shades you just bought for $5 might have cool frames that make you look like John Lennon. But you'll look more like Blind Lemon Jefferson if they don't pack the protection you need.
Here's what to look for: a tag or label that says your lenses block 99%-100% of UVA and UVB radiation. The label should read either UV 400 or 100% UV protection. Don't be fooled, by the way, if the glasses merely say "UV protective." That's not good enough -- and in fact, may mean they're no good a all.
QUALITY AND DURABILITY: DON'T LET THAT COOL FACADE CRACK
Glasses are fragile -- and you don't need reminding of this if you have rambunctious kids at home who like to wrestle with you. So once you've established that the shades you like can protect your eyes, ask yourself if the glasses themselves need protecting.
We're sure the ZZ Top guys would agree that cheap sunglasses shouldn't be confused with cheapo sunglasses. Look at the frames carefully. Are those all-important hinges spindly and fragile? Do the lenses themselves seem as though they might crack at the slightest bend or impact? Even if you're not using your glasses for sports or physical activity, you want them to last.
Speaking of lenses, the lens quality itself should promote clear vision. Imperfect lenses can strain your eyes and become uncomfortable to wear, and can also hurt your performance in sports or activities that require sharp vision.
Another sign of quality: polarization. It's not an essential, but many wearers prefer polarized lenses, which help reduce the glare when light bounces off water, highways and other reflective surfaces.
Many cheap shades have inferior optical quality. Good lenses require careful manufacturing control that includes "decentering," or tapering the lenses. Inexpensive plastic lenses will strain your eyes. You might not notice it at first, but after a while, subtle fatigue or even severe eyestrain and headaches will set in.
And trust us, it's hard to look fabulous when your head feels it's in a vice grip.
COMFORT AND STYLE: NOW YOU'RE LOOKING GOOD
All of that said, it's easy to go too far in the other direction and dish out $300 or more for sunglasses that are overpriced. How do you know? Approach fancy designer brands with caution, especially if the company is better known for handbags than eyewear. You're probably paying for the name and the logo more than you are the quality of the lens and glasses.
There's no reason to spend big bucks on designer shades when manufacturers such as Maui Jim, Revo, Kaenon and others make professional, affordable sunglasses guaranteed as UV protective. Check out
sunglassesbuyersguide.com for more info on recommended brands.
You can get good discounts at sites such as zappos.com, amazon.com and bluefly.com. And online boutique Rue La La offers short-term deals that can last just 24 hours. Act quick and you can snag yourself some primo designer shades for up to 50% off.
If you're skittish about shopping for glasses online, you can always visit an eyewear boutique or store and look at the various brands first. Try some on; see what frame fits your face best. Then shop around for the best deal.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW
So when shopping for sunglasses, it's really a matter of searching for the best price once you've gone through all the factors on this checklist:
1) The glasses have 99%-100% UV protection (also known as UV 400 protection).
2) The lenses are durable and "decentered" to reduce eye fatigue.
3) The frames are durable and comfortable.
4) It's a style that looks fashionable -- and makes you feel fabulous.
Inexpensive is good, but don't sacrifice to get second-rate sunglasses. They break, they don't protect your eyes, and you'll just wind up wasting time and money with all those return trips to buy another pair ... whereas if you buy the right pair, they'll change your attitude when strutting down the street -- and leave you with some change in your pocket to boot.