For cyclists, sunglasses are a must-have even if you’re going out for a casual ride. Not only do they help protect your eyes from the sun, but they can make it easier to see and navigate on the road, especially in bright sunlight. Plus, while wearing them, you can stress less when you pass that unavoidable swarm of bugs.
The right pair of sunglasses won’t slip, they won’t bounce, and they’ll protect your eyes from all kinds of damage that you might not have to worry about in the moment, but certainly should be considering in the long run.
Read on to learn about the damage of not wearing sunglasses, what you need to look for in sunglasses to make sure you’re getting the right UV eye protection, and what brands are doing to keep your vision safe.
Why You Need UV Eye Protection on Every Ride
The chief role of sunglasses is ultraviolet light protection. “The majority of UV light is absorbed by the cornea, but with significant amounts of exposure, that radiation will eventually get through the cornea and cause damage to the inner structures of the eye,” says James Dello Russo, an optometrist at the New Jersey Eye Care Center in Bergenfield and Passaic, New York.
Cyclists who don’t wear UV eye protection can eventually develop growths on the clear covering over the white part of the eye called pinguecula and pterygium, says Yuna Rapoport, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Manhattan Eye in New York City. A pinguecula is a yellowish, raised deposit of protein, fat, or calcium; a pterygium is a growth of fleshy tissue that may start as a pinguecula. A pterygium can affect your vision, and may result in surgery.
If you’re riding in the snow or near water, you can also develop a form of photokeratitis, a painful, temporary eye condition caused by exposure to UV reflections off of snow, ice, sand, or water. (Translation: Wearing UV eye protection isn’t just a necessity in the bright lights of summer, but straight through winter too.)
“The two biggest concerns, though, are cataracts and age-related macular degeneration,” says Dello Russo. You shouldn’t have to worry about these issues until your 70s, but “people who are out in the elements all the time are at risk of developing these sight-debilitating issues at a younger age, which we would never want,” he explains.
PSA: Don’t brush this off and say, ‘oh, I only ride a few miles at a time, I’ll be fine.’ “It’s exactly like cumulative sun exposure to your skin,” says Rapoport. “It all adds up.”
Then there’s the physical protection element. Sunglasses act as a kind of environmental windsheld for your eyes, says Dello Russo: With enough exposure to UV light, cyclists will get basal cell carcinomas—non-metastatic tumors on the skin.” One super common spot: The eyelids.
Plus, “the cornea—the clear, protective outer layer of your eye—is really susceptible to even the tiniest particles getting in,” explains Rapoport. When you’re riding on dusty trails or the wind is whipping debris across the road, “the slightest piece of dust or dirt, a millimeter or even less, can cause an erosion which can lead to an eye infection,” she says. Dirt, dust, and allergens in the air can also cause dry, itchy eyes—which can take the focus off your ride and slow you down.
The Most Important Features in Sunglasses
Not surprisingly, the number one selling point in a pair of sunglasses is their UV protection. “You want to look for lenses that block 100 percent of UV light,” says Dello Russo. “The label should say ‘UV absorption up to 400 nanomenters,’ or UV 400.”
There are two types of UV light to be concerned about: UVA, which is associated with skin aging, and UVB, which is associated with skin burning. UV 400-protected sunglasses block both.
FYI: A darker lens tint doesn’t necessarily offer better protection. “How dark your sunglasses are is a matter of personal preference,” says Dello Russo. Certain tints can actually improve contrast in specific conditions, but the color or shade doesn’t have any effect on UV protection—you can even find clear lenses with UV 400.
However dark you prefer your sunglasses, the lenses should be polarized. Polarization is a coating on top of the lens that blocks the reflection of light off of surfaces. What it does is “block that level of glare you’re going to be receiving from different angles so you’re more comfortable,” says Rapoport.
Finally, embrace the whole “bigger is better” approach. Cyclists are really going to want to actually look for shield or wrap-style sunglasses, says Dello Russo. “Most of them are formed to the face and wrap around to the side, typically with oversized lenses, which are not only going to keep the UV out of the eyes, but keep it off the lids and skin.”
As with any piece of gear, though, comfort is key, said Rapoport. “If they pinch your nose or squeeze the temple area, that can cause headaches,” she says. And sunglasses that slide down can be an annoying distraction. Opt for a pair that comes with adjustable nose pads and you can customize the fit.
The Best Sunglasses for Cycling
We’ve come a long way since you could get away with riding in sunglasses you picked up at a gas station. And to offer more options, now many running glasses can double as cycling glasses.
Take Oakley’s latest innovation in running sunglasses for example, the RE:SUBZERO, which features the brand’s new PhysioMorphic Geometry. Lenses typically curve around a vertical axis (a.k.a. cylindrical lenses) or both vertically and horizontally (a.k.a. spherical lenses), but these new lenses combine both approaches in what’s called a toric or toroid lens, explains Nick Garfias, the vice president of design at Oakley. “It has more of a football shape, curving in two directions in order to become a shield over both your eyes,” he says. “That makes your optic view through that lens way better.”
The frameless design of the RE:SUBZERO—with an extended wrap and rigidity in key areas that mimic the structural properties of a frame—also enhances your field of vision, says Garfias. (And offers more of that eye and skin protection that Dello Russo mentions.)
This shield style has become ubiquitous in the performance sunglass world, not just in Oakley’s designs (see also: the Oakley Sutro), but in Roka’s Matador Air, Smith’s Flywheel, and Rapha’s Pro Team Frameless Glasses—all of which provide oversized protection so you can ride with unobstructed vision.
Oakley’s RE:SUBZERO—along with many of the brand’s other performance sunglasses—are outfitted with the brand’s Prizm Lens Technology, which is designed to enhance color and contrast so you can see more detail. District Vision also focuses on lens color, not just to provide clarity on a ride, but to reduce strain on the eye caused by physical exertion, says co-founder Tom Daly.
“We know that different color curves and different lens tints relax the mind,” Daly explains. “If you’re looking at something through a blue lens compared to a red lens, it sends different signals to the brain and it affects your central nervous system in different ways.” (For example, people wearing blue-tinted lenses demonstrated better reaction times in a study by ZEISS, a German manufacturer of optical systems; red was determined to have more of an activating effect.)
But the easiest way to reduce strain on the face is to let less light through the lens, Daly adds. “Traditional maximum sun-blocking lenses let in around 13 to 16 percent of light; we take it much lower, down to 10 or 11 percent,” says Daly. “We block more light because, just like you hold tension in your body, you hold strain in your eyes. You need to be able to relax the muscles around your eyes.”
District Vision’s Black Rose lens blocks 15 to 31 percent of light, which changes depending on the amount of light around you, says Daly. Similarly, Dynafit recently released the Ultra Pro sunglasses, which use photochromic lens glass technology so the lenses adapt in seconds to variable light—making them ideal for trail riders going in and out of trees. 100% and Tifosi also offers photochromic lenses that react to UV rays, along with other brands.
Of course, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on an excellent pair of sunglasses. Goodr has become a staple in the running world with their $25 no-slip, no-bounce, polarized, UV 400 lenses. You won’t get quite the same level of protection and light blockage or color contrast as the higher-end lenses, but you’ll get the essentials at a lower price. (Knockaround sunglasses are similarly priced, and also have UV 400 polarized lenses.)
Goodr also just release the WRAP G, which offers a wider field of vision—with no obstructions or blind spots—than the brand's standard wayfarer designs, more in line with the shield styles doctors recommend for cycling. These shades also come with a removable nose-piece and two sizing options for a snug fit that won’t bounce, and ring up at just $45.
Not every cyclist needs every single feature in the most expensive lenses, so determine what matters most to you—just make sure any pair you buy has that UV 400 eye protection.
The Bottom Line on Sunglasses and UV Eye Protection While Cycling
At the end of the day, everyone wants to look good in their sunglasses. And you can do that while protecting your eyes—no matter your budget. The key is just making sure you actually wear your glasses every time you head out for a ride, so you can sidestep any vision or other eye issues that can come from too much UV exposure. And remember: When picking out your perfect pair, don’t be afraid to go big.