Skip to Main Content Skip to Accessibility
polarized vs non polarized sunglasses

Polarized vs. Non-Polarized Sunglasses

March 20, 2023

What’s the difference between polarized and non-polarized sunglasses, and which one is best for you?

They might have been developed by NASA to protect astronauts’ eyes from space radiation, but these days you’re more likely to see polarized sunglasses on a Pacific Coast sailor or angler. Not that you’d know they’re wearing specialized lenses just by looking at them. The real wizardry takes place when you’re peeking out through the lenses. But what’s the real difference between polarized and non-polarized lenses, and which type should you keep on your daily rotation?

Well, here’s how a little bit of science has made a whole lot of difference ...

Sunglasses view of polarized versus non-polarized sunglasses lens

What are Polarized Sunglasses?

And Why Do People like Wearing Them so Much?

The lenses of polarized sunglasses are coated with a thin chemical film. This film eliminates much of the harsh, brilliant light that’s reflected off water or highway surfaces on sunny days. They are designed to reduce glare and decrease the amount of reflections that your eyes see. Glare occurs when our eyes see a flat surface reflecting light at one angle. These reflections can make it more difficult to see clearly on sun-filled days.

Equipped with a pair of polarized sunglasses, wearers can look at those same flat surfaces without the glare, allowing them to see beneath the water’s surface or through sunlit windows. Standard, non-polarized sunglasses, by contrast, simply reduce the intensity of bright or shimmering reflections. They do not have the capability to block the glare that our eyes experience from reflections off of smooth surfaces.

People like to wear polarized lenses because it lessens the glare they experience as they go about their day. Even if they’re not planning to go boating, play a game of beach volleyball, or need to see through sunlit windows, they may find that their eyes are less strained with polarized lenses. You can find stylish sunglasses in both polarized and non-polarized varieties, so it’s really just a matter of personal choice.

How do Polarized Sunglasses Work?

The Science Behind How Your Polarized Sunglasses Reduce Glare

Reflective surfaces such as flat water, glass, snow, or smooth hardtops (such as the hood of a car) polarize natural sunlight, concentrating its waves in a single horizontal direction. This causes excessive dazzle and glare that can end up straining the eyes. The molecules coating polarized sunglasses are usually arranged vertically, much like blinds on a window, blocking out the piercing slices of horizontal light. These molecular ‘blinds’ let normal concentrations of the light pass but block out the intense concentrations of reflected light.

Because the more intense, horizontal light waves are blocked, you’ll notice much less glare when you’re using polarized lenses. These types of lenses will also typically darken what you see around you, but the images will be clearer and you’ll be able to see more of what you’re looking at.  

How Polarized Sunglasses Reduce Glare

Polarized vs. Non-Polarized

Which One Is Best?

Non-polarized lenses treat all sunlight equally and reduce the overall intensity. This offers protection for the eyes but will not tackle shimmer and sparkle if you’re around water, snow, or glass. Non-polarized lenses can also protect your eyes from harmful UV rays no matter if you’re out on the beach, running errands, or just enjoying a stroll down the street. Most sunglasses are designed to filter out those rays and darken images, but if they are polarized, they will always be labeled as such.

Non-polarized lenses are great when you want to see the world around you as it is, which includes all kinds of colors that aren’t dimmed by polarized lenses. If it’s cloudy or overcast outside, non-polarized lenses are a great option.

Polarized sunglasses also filter ambient light but go further by canceling out bright reflected light. This advanced performance allows:

  • Anglers to see beneath the surface of a lake or river.
  • Boaters to ‘read’ the texture of waves more clearly.
  • Drivers to focus unhindered on the road ahead.
  • Beach-goers to pick out the colors, contours, and contrasts of the sand and water better.
  • Golfers to see clearer and reduce glare on fairways.
  • Most snow-sport enthusiasts also choose to wear polarized lenses (although not always) because snow can cause glare.
Both types of lenses make for more eye comfort on a sunny day, but polarized lenses actively counter the incapacitating effects of bright sunlight. No one likes to go through ftheir day straining their eyes due to the glare from sunlight. If you know you’re going to be out on the water, driving in the sun, or even participating in a sport outside, you may want to consider bringing your polarized sunglasses with you.

Is There a Way to Tell If Lenses Are Polarized?

It’s Always Wise to Test Your “Polarized” Sunglasses to Make Sure They’ll Actually Reduce Glare

Polarized and non-polarized lenses look the same, which is one of the reasons why you should test sunglasses labeled ‘polarized.’ To do so, look through the lenses at a reflective surface then turn the lenses 90 degrees. If the lenses are genuinely polarized, the bright reflection will disappear.

If you happen to be outside and near a body of water on a sunny day then just look through the sunglasses that claim to be polarized at said body of water. If you don’t notice a large amount of glare and you can see below the water’s surface, your lenses are polarized.

Alternatively, hold the lenses in front of a backlit LED screen and rotate. This time, the screen will become darker for polarized lenses, whereas non-polarized lenses will reveal no change.

Image of female kayaker that highlights the different lens views of polarized versus non-polarized sunglasses

Is It Worth Getting Polarized Sunglasses?

Are Polarized Sunglasses Right for You?

Although polarized lenses will tackle the discomfort caused by intense sources of light, they perform the same as non-polarized lenses when it comes to filtering out harmful UV light. If your lifestyle regularly takes you outdoors, both polarized and non-polarized sunglasses will give you essential UV protection. If you need the extra ability to see colors or contours accurately, however, polarized lenses will help. This is why many outdoor athletes and weekend warriors decide to get polarized lenses.

Bear in mind that polarized lenses don’t perform as well as non-polarized when it comes to reading digital screens or displays, making them less common among pilots. Likewise, polarized lenses make it harder to distinguish shiny patches of ice for those out walking, skiing, snowboarding, or driving after a snowfall, even if they do reduce overall glare.

You could always plan on bringing both types with you if you’re planning a day skiing or snowboarding—especially if you know there are going to be some instances where you’ll want to reduce the glare from the snow, and others when you’ll want non-polarized lenses in case there’s ice.

The same is true if you’re going to be driving on a sunny day with potential chances of icey roads. Polarized lenses are great for blocking out the glare from the reflective road while non-polarized lenses might be a better bet for detecting ice patched while driving.

Depending on what you need your shades for could determine whether you get polarized or non-polarized lenses.

Polarized lenses can significantly reduce eye strain, eliminate reflection, and improve performance in circumstances where the level of sunlight is overwhelming. If conditions are simply cloudy or overcast, a standard pair of non-polarized sunglasses should be sufficient to give your eyes that all-important UV protection.  

Are There Disadvantages of Getting Polarized Lenses?

And What Are the Downsides of Polarized Lenses?

There are a lot of advantages to polarized lenses, but we should mention that they aren’t ideal for every situation. As we mentioned, you might be better served with non-polarized lenses if you need to be aware of shiny patches such as ice on the road, or if you’re skiing or snowboarding in icy conditions. Polarized lenses also make LED screens like your phone, watch, or tablet hard and even impossible to read at certain angles.

This can be annoying, or at worst, problematic, if you need to monitor electronics (like a pilot). Reading your phone for long periods of time through polarized lenses may cause eye strain and lead to a headache, so it’s a good idea to have a pair of non-polarized lenses if that’s something you do often.

Polarized and non-polarized lenses each have their distinct purposes. If you need shades that will reduce glare and help you see the world around more clearly, snag a pair of polarized lenses from our wide sunglasses collection. If you just want some UV protection that protects your eyes, we also offer non-polarized shades in our custom sunglasses shop.

SEE MORE Journal