Polarized vs Non-Polarized Sunglasses: What’s the Difference?

Absolute Zero Sunglasses sitting in the sand at the beach

 

Not all sunglasses are created equally. This statement might hold true - especially if you’re looking for the next pair worthy of a place in your growing collection. And the term that you might (or frequently) have come across with is “polarized”. Maybe you’re thinking of getting one but you’re not exactly 100% sold on the idea. After all, a polarized pair is much more expensive than your standard, non-polarized sunglasses. 

But you might be wondering: is there really a significant difference between the two besides the price tag? And more importantly, are polarized sunglasses really far more superior?

What are Polarized Sunglasses?

Polarized sunglasses feature a chemical that filters out light. Think of it this way: when you hang a miniblind on your window, you’re preventing the harsh sunlight from entering your room. From the small openings on the blind, you will only see the light that’s passing through. Polarized sunglasses work that way, but instead of letting in horizontal light, it only allows vertical light in. Horizontal light can come from any horizontal surfaces like smooth bodies of water, glass, the hood of a car, and snow. 

Have you ever looked at calm water or a piece of metal on a bright day? It makes your eyes uncomfortable, doesn’t it? When such light reflects your eyes, it can interfere with your vision, making you squint from the discomfort. This light is known as glare. Polarized sunglasses solve that problem by reducing glare and eyestrain. 

 

White Noise Performance Sunglasses by Kroop's

Kroop's White Noise Polarized Sunglasses

Polarized vs. Non-Polarized

Say you’re in a boat on a bright, sunny day. When you’re wearing non-polarized sunglasses, you’re shielding your eyes from the harmful UV rays of the sun. But when it comes to actually being able to look at the body of water without squinting, you’ll notice that discomfort that comes from wearing non-polarized lenses.

That’s because these sunglasses treat all light the same. They only reduce the intensity of light but they don’t really tackle glare. Polarized sunglasses, on the other hand, have an anti-glare coating that filters out horizontal light and diminishes glare. This is one of the reasons why polarized sunglasses have become one of the best sunglasses for boating, fishing, or if you’re spending time in areas near the water. 

Not only will it allow you to see past through most reflections on surfaces, but you’ll be able to see through the water below. Looking through polarized lenses makes the images a bit darker than usual, but you’ll see objects more vividly and clearly with its increased contrast.

 

Side by Side Comparison of Water with Polarized and Non-Polarized Lenses

Non-Polarized (Left) vs. Polarized (Right) Sunglasses

 

When to Wear Polarized Sunglasses

Whether you’re running a quick errand or spending long hours outdoors, polarized sunglasses can be a great choice in most situations. There are certain instances where polarized lenses are a better pick than non-polarized lenses: 

  • Water activities: Water activities such as boating and fishing can cause eye discomfort, especially if you’re planning on spending long periods of time on the water. Polarized sunglasses combat this by reducing glare which can help you see better. 
  • Snowy weather: Snow has reflective qualities, and wearing a pair of polarized sunglasses can help. However, there are situations wherein polarized lenses can do more harm than good in snowy environments. See below. 
  •  Photophobic or light-sensitive individuals: If you’re suffering from photophobia or light sensitivity, polarized sunglasses provide you extra protection from reflective surfaces that cause glare. Keep in mind, though, that the benefit can vary depending on the lens’ darkness or strength. We recommend that you consult an eye professional before deciding on the polarized lenses that will fit your requirements.

When Not to Wear Polarized Sunglasses

Now that we know that polarized sunglasses have more benefits than non-polarized sunglasses, does it mean that they are the better choice? Well, not really. There are still situations on when not to wear polarized sunglasses:

  • Night driving: While polarized lenses can reduce the glare of the oncoming traffic lights, they are not recommended for low-light conditions. In fact, it can be dangerous as you are blocking additional light that helps you see better in such conditions.
  • Looking at LCD screens: Some LCD screens such as our smartphones, laptops, and TVs are designed with an anti-glare coating that allows us to use them even under bright light. This interferes with the anti-glare coating that is also present in polarized lenses. As such, when looking at digital screens through polarized sunglasses, images can appear slightly faded or completely black. However, this only depends on the angle. Certain jobs - such as a heavy machine operator or airline pilot - that require the use of LCD screens are also not recommended to wear polarized sunglasses. 
  • Snowy weather: When you’re driving on icy roads or if you need to see icy patches when skiing, glare and additional light can be more of an advantage. Thus, it’s not ideal to wear polarized sunglasses in these situations.

How to Tell if Your Sunglasses Are Polarized?

Can’t tell if your sunglasses are polarized? Use one of these simple tests:

COMPUTER SCREEN METHOD

Polarized Lens Test using Computer Monitor Screen

  • Look through your lenses at the computer screen.
  • Rotate the lens to a 90° angle. 
  • Polarized lenses will turn black.

TWO PAIRS METHOD

Polarization test using two overlapping lenses

  • Look through two pairs at the same time.
  • Rotate one pair to 60° angle to the other.
  • The overlapping lenses will become darker if both pairs are polarized.

REFLECTIVE SURFACE METHOD

  • Find a reflective surface (water or glass would be ideal).
  • Tilt your glasses to view the surface through one of the lenses.
  • Rotate the glasses to a 60° angle. 
  • Check if the glare gets better or worse.
  • The glare will diminish if the sunglasses are polarized.

Final Thoughts

To polarize or not to polarize? That is the question. Of course, the answer depends on you and your needs. Polarized and non-polarized sunglasses both do a great job in shielding your eyes on a bright day - but that’s where the similarities end.

Keep in mind that there are scenarios in which non-polarized sunglasses fare better than polarized sunglasses. For instance, it’s hard to see LCD screens or displays with polarized lenses - making them not ideal for airline pilots and machine operators. 

In winter sports such as skydiving and downhill skiing, it can be difficult to navigate through shiny ice patches when wearing polarized sunglasses - thus increasing the risk for injuries and accidents. Driving at night is also another drawback that you have to consider. 

But it’s the anti-glaring properties that make polarized sunglasses shine. These are the better choice when you’re looking to spend long periods of time outdoors and you don’t want to be bothered by eye strain and viewing discomfort. Objects viewed through polarized sunglasses are much clearer and sharper while offering vivid, crisp colors.