Gear / Gear Guide Category Page / Technology / The Case For Polarized Sunglasses

by Andy Cochrane

Emily Hart, a 3rd grade math teacher, avid yogi, and oil painter, is on a quest to visit all 61 National Parks across the country, solo. This summer she was on assignment in Alaska for Roam and needed to make key decisions on gear she would take along – including her sunglasses. The impact of sun on glaciers, oceans, and high peaks is different than many places in the Lower 48. Accordingly, she started researching polarized sunglasses.

Polarized lenses are, simply, the more advanced version of normal sunglasses. If your only need for eye protection is walking around a city on a sunny day, you probably should save your money. If you’re an avid outdoor athlete or adventurer, polarized sunglasses fall comfortably into the “must have” category. This article is intended to help explain why.

Polarized lenses don’t protect against UV more than standard sunglasses do. Instead, they help sharpen your vision in high glare situations, like water, snow, and reflections off flat objects. Thus, they are safer than regular sunglasses. For someone like Emily planning to paddle fjords, hike in the Alaska range, and drive in rain and snow, they are a must-have. 

Polarized sunglasses first hit the market in the early 1940’s and by the late 60’s were readily available and affordable for the masses. In the fifty years since they’ve grown in popularity to become the standard for most outdoor pursuits. Much like breathable raincoats and wicking base layers, polarization doesn’t turn heads – but it is still critical to consider if you’re heading outside.

Polarization technology is almost ubiquitous across sunglass manufacturers, but there is a large range of quality. All polarized sunglasses reduce glare, improve visual acuity, and increase contrast, but some do these things much better than others. The reason for the variance is both the materials and processes that go into manufacturing a pair of polarized sunglasses. It can be incredibly hard to sort through all of the marketing jargon and decide which pair is best to buy. 

To learn more about polarization, I sat down Cliff Robinson, the CEO at Revo. Revo was on the leading edge of the market commercialization in the early days of polarization and continue to push the boundaries of the technology today. Al started by explaining “the simplest way to understand the technology is just like ventian blinds. A vertical film filters out unwanted glare and reflections, making a well-made pair of polarized sunglasses great for driving, skiing, and time at the beach.” 

The first synthetic polarizer, named Polaroid, was created in 1929 by Dr. Land. Six years later the first patent was awarded to him and two years after that he founded Polaroid Corporation. In the early 1940’s the first curved lenses were developed, expanding the possibilities of frame design. To many, this was the moment that polarized sunglasses were born.

According to Cliff, Revo soon got involved, refining the technology and design. “We like to say we went to space to create the best lens on Earth. Revo was founded by Mitch Ruda, a NASA astrophysicist and optical engineer in 1985 who at the time was working on a project to develop special coatings to protect satellite porthole windows from space radiation,” said Robinson. “As an avid skier and cyclist, Ruda noticed a need for a high performing lens that did not exist on the market. He wanted a lens that would protect his eyes while pedaling around on the brightest of days in Tucson.”

Today Revo’s proprietary LMS technology brings together multiple features to improve the polarization quality, including a multilayer coating, multiple filters in the lenses, and a backside anti-reflective coating. Before the LMS technology most polarized lenses simply darkened images to protect your eyes.

The first thing someone like Emily will notice is that polarized sunnies typically costs 30 to 50% more than their standard counterparts. This reflects the added degree of difficulty and time to manufacture, primarily in the layers and coating of the lenses themselves. The value of course is better vision, especially in places with high glare. For most, this tradeoff is well worth it. 

Hundreds of brands now make low to medium end polarized lenses and sunglasses, but very few have figured out how to make high performance sunglasses. Most mass market factories use an acrylic or acetate material, then laminate the polarized film between it. Using heat they form the desired shape and cut the lens. This is cheap, but creates distortion and produces sunglasses that are easier to scratch. 

Some brands use polycarbonate injection molding, which is impact resistant and harder to scratch. The downside is that it’s not perfectly clear. Revo takes a different road, gluing polarized film in between the two sides of the lens. Depending on the material of the lens, this is the most clear process. All polarized sunglasses will help reduce eye fatigue, but only some offer a clear view. “Revo lenses use the same filter coating deployed on satellite panels for a level of UV protection and performance that is unmatched in the eyewear industry,” said Cliff, emphasizing the difference in technology.

Truth be told, there is no perfect answer. The gamut of sunglasses options exists because consumers need different things, and have different budgets. For someone like Emily who aims to spend a lot of time on water, ice, and behind the wheel, the right option is likely a pair of performance polarized sunglasses.

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