Monday, February 18, 2013

The Frugal Runner Series: Cutting the Crap on Sunglasses

Who doesn't love sunglasses? They are just universally cool, and they really take the ocular sting out of a sunny, mid-morning run. The beach would not be the same without shades, nor would the World Series of Poker (for different reasons). But probably more than any other one single piece of clothing or gear an athlete can purchase - except maybe shoes - sunglasses suffer from the most overwhelming tidal wave of marketing BS. This can make it exceptionally difficult to decipher what is real value and what is simply perceived regarding sunglasses' protective qualities.
Oakley: Making people with disposable income look semi-alien since 1990-something.
So, where is the dividing line between the facts and the garbage? In my tireless Google search for answers, I stumbled across several helpful articles and interviews that have proven very eye-opening (pardon the pun). For the sake of you, my readers, I will attempt to summarize all the most interesting and helpful content from those sources. Links can be found at the bottom.

1. Sunglasses are important even in overcast conditions.
I think most people know that sunglasses help you see better on a sunny day and can protect your eyes from searing sunlight.  But as Vissini would say, "Only thlightly leth well known ithz thisth!": UV rays couldn't give two poops about your beloved cloud cover. They attack with intense ferocity all day regardless of the conditions. Anybody who has gone shirtless at the pool thinking, "No prob. The sun isn't even out," only to wind up with a serious sunburn can attest to this. The research further bears it out. You may look a bit douchy, but you can say it's because you're health conscious... while smoking a cigarette and taking a bite out of your 1/2 pounder from Five Guys.

Something tells me that these guys aren't primarily concerned with premature glaucoma.
Sunglasses indoors? Check. Chinstrap beards? 2/3 check. Wifebeaters and chains? Check.
The triumvirate! And we haven't even gotten to the hair.
2. You don't necessarily get what you pay for.
When it comes to features in sunglasses, there is a definite point of diminishing returns. According to Dr. Dr. Jay Duker, chair of ophthalmology at Tufts Medical Center (Great name, right? Sounds like they research toilet tissue.), that means,  "for about $40, you can get a pair that offers 100% protection against ultra-violet rays. If you spend maybe $70 you should be able to get a pair with decent quality polarizing lenses that cut out glare. Beyond that, the medical benefits tail off pretty fast" (Arends). If you're paying more than $70 or so for your shades, you are essentially paying purely for style and brand recognition.

3. There are three kinds of UV rays, but we are only really worried about two.
Let me put my lab coat on for this one. The industry usually boils this down to just "UV rays," but UVA and UVB rays are both invisible to the eye and potentially damaging. To make it simple, long-range UVA rays burn your skin whereas short-range UVB rays age your skin. Cataracts and macular degeneration are linked to UVA exposure, whereas UVB rays are causally associated with growths on the eye's surface that can cause corneal problems and distorted vision as well as photokeratitis, a painful inflammation of the cornea commonly referred to as "Snow Blindness." Ouch. Make no mistake: you need protection from both.

Since I know you are curious, the third type of damaging ultraviolet rays are called "UVC." They are the most potentially damaging types of UV rays, but they are thankfully filtered out of the sunlight that reaches us as it passes through the Ozone layer. Makes sense why astronauts wear those highly reflective, dark-tinted shield lenses on their helmets, eh?

"I wear them purely for their UVA and UVB-protective qualities."
4. Almost all sunglasses are made and sold by the same people: Luxottica.
This further explains why all the "good" ones are so freaking expensive: there is very little competition. Sunglass Hut and other like retailers are also owned by Luxottica. Sound like a Monopoly? Well, it appears that it doesn't matter because Luxottica is an Italian company headquartered overseas. And technically it cannot be because Luxottica doesn't control the raw materials production... to my knowledge. Hrm...

5. The markup on "designer" sunglasses is absolutely absurd.
The harmful-ray-blocking and ballistic protection technology in the lenses of most popular sunglasses is rather cheap. Likewise, the materials and production processes for the vast majority of sough-after frames is very low-buck. R&D on sunglasses hasn't advanced much in decades. So what gives? Well, it's called supply and demand. Sunglass Hut will charge the price for those Oakley Half-Jackets that you are willing to pay. Having pro athlete endorsements and other elaborate advertising campaigns only boosts that image and brand recognition, making their product ever more desirable. This is where sunglasses companies spend their money. It's human nature to desire what others universally recognize as cool or associate with elite athletic performance, and ad execs know it well. Luxottica's gross profits were an absurd 60% last year, but the company's profits after advertising, etc. are factored in are a respectable, but pedestrian, 11%. That's many millions of dollars of advertising aimed right at your eyes.

"These have a recognizable logo on the side. We are hip."
Uh, those glasses make your eyes look fat.
6. Don't believe labels on those gas station aviators.
Testing shows that those "100% UV Protection" stickers often don't tell the whole story... or are outright lies. This may not be limited to the cheapies, though, so buyer beware, and take advantage of helpful fact #7.

7. You can have your shades' protective qualities checked at your local optician!
Who knew, right? Maybe I will grab an arm full of pairs that I like off of the bargain shelf at Wallyworld and tote them over to the Eye Center. I have not tried this and don't know how cooperative a busy optician would be when faced with what amounts to a favor for an non-paying customer. Either way, it's good to know.

8. The color of sunglass tint is almost completely a matter of preference, but some sport-specific applications make sense.
Brown, copper, amber blue, grey. It's all about what you like. There is some research pointing to the fact that amber, brown, and copper lenses supposedly allow for better visibility in low light and defining of contours; that is why most goggles on people at the shooting range are of the yellow/amber variety. Also, sports like fishing can make good use of the increase color contrast from such lenses. I personally prefer gray tinted lenses just because I desire an accurate-but-more-tolerable version of "real life."
"Holy Freaking Crap! My whole world looks like it's 1080p!" This has got to be the most shamelessly idiotic marketing this side of "I can't believe it's not butter."
9. Polarized lenses are what you want if you are an athlete.
Polarization is all about reduced glare, and it works. This is a feature well worth paying for if you intend to wear your shades on the water, in snowy conditions, or in any kind of athletic situation where you may encounter glare. The only real drawback of polarized specs for most people is that there can be some difficulty in reading an LCD screen while wearing them. This may be a problem for cyclists and runners reading their GPS or cycling computer at full sprint.

10. All sunglasses are NOT created equal.
Yes, there are differences between those designer sunglasses and what you may pick up from the rotating tower at Target for $5.00-14.99. Material qualities are likely going to be significantly better, both in the frame and lenses. The UV-blocking elements are typically laminated into the lenses of more expensive sunglasses whereas the cheapies are often simply coated, which may peel or flake. Notice that I use words like "typically" and "likley." Do a Google search with "peeling" or "flaking" and any high-end brand name to see why. However, a simple side-by-side comparison of Oakleys and Jokelys will reveal obvious quality differences in the frame. Worth the price difference? Hell no, but there is a difference.

The Takeaway
Don't think that there is some magic ingredient in those celebrity-endorsed, gorgeously-marketed, brand-name specs. If you are buying sunglasses purely for their medically protective properties (ie, you're a great grandparent), there is no reason to spend more than $10 at the drug store - probably not even that much.

So what is a penny-pinching fellow to do? Well, I am not, as a matter of principal, ever going to pay more than $50 for a pair of sunglasses. Even that seems like silly money for me considering what you get for those dollars and what you can get for considerably less, but I am unwilling to compromise on a few qualities:

1. Polarization - Since they will be primarily for running and bicycling, this is a must. Glare will no longer rule over me! 
2. Fit - I have a skinny face, so many models do not fit me well. This means I will probably have to try them on and buy from a retail location further limiting my choices. (internet = deals).
3. Looks - Yes, they matter. My tall, skinny noggin' limits my choices.
4. The "Stays-In-Place Factor" - Again, gotta try 'em out and read reviews.

I have no brand preference whatsoever, but if I can get a "known" brand for the same price as one that is not familiar to me, I will spring for the name recognition. /marketingworkedonme

My next entry about sunglasses will be about me narrowing down my search and laying down some meager amount of cash...maybe.

Works Cited: 
"Glasses and Sunglasses: Why do name-brand glasses and sunglasses cost so much?" -
"Are Designer Sunglasses Worth the Price?" - Brett Arends, Wall Street Journal
EYEZONE: the oficial Framesdirect blog

"5 reasons why designer sunglasses are so expensive" - Tania Brauk√§mper, Fashionista Blog

"Are expensive sunglasses worth the cost?" - CBS5 Arizona

"Sunshine on a Cloudy Day" - David Schoonmaker, American Scientist

Disclaimer: I am not a flippin' doctor. You've been warned.

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