Sunglasses vs. Goggles: How to Protect Your Eyes (and Face) from Winter's Glare

Winter likes to throw two things in your face: intense glare from the snow and bitter, frostbite-hastening winds. Factor in open terrain above treeline, and the effect is especially punishing. To defend yourself from winter’s onslaught, goggles or sunglasses are a must. Here are several variables to consider when selecting winter eye protection.

For both goggles and sunglasses, different types of lenses block different amounts of light. This key measurement, the percent of visible light that passes through a lens, is listed either as an exact number or indicated more generally by category. Most lenses fall in category 2 (18 to 43 percent light transmitted) or category 3 (8 to 18 percent light transmitted). For typical bright and sunny winter conditions, look for either a category 3 or a category 2 lens that transmits roughly 25 percent or less of visible light. For extended visits to alpine terrain, especially at higher elevations, ultradark category 4 lenses (a.k.a. glacier glasses) that transmit a mere 3 to 8 percent of light may be worth considering. Some lenses are also polarized, a desirable feature that greatly reduces reflected glare but typically adds $30 to $60 or more to the price tag.

Shades of gray and amber are the most common options for both goggles and sunglasses. Gray lenses provide true color transmission (the world looks like it usually does, albeit darker) but tend to flatten light and reduce depth perception. Amber lenses, which run on a spectrum from brown to orange, transform the colors of the world accordingly but improve contrast and depth perception—a plus in flat-light conditions when it’s difficult to determine undulations in the snow. Other colors, including blue, yellow, and pink, work well in low-light conditions.

Lightweight and compact, sunglasses are a popular and versatile option that can be used in a variety of conditions and seasons. A proper fit is crucial, however, and should provide full coverage above, below, and to the sides of your eyes to fully encompass your field of vision. Pay particular attention to the areas underneath your eyes, ensuring that the lenses block glare reflected up from the snow. Expect to pay anywhere from $80 to $150 and up for a high-quality pair. Even the best sunglasses don’t cover your upper face, exposing portions of your cheeks, temples, and forehead to the elements. In cold, windy conditions or during activities that generate their own wind, such as downhill skiing, this can be unpleasant or downright dangerous. In these situations, goggles are your best bet.

Goggles attach securely to your head, provide full wraparound protection of your vision and upper face, and are easy to position and manipulate with gloves or mittens. A properly fitting pair will sit snugly and comfortably against your skin and provide you with an unobstructed field of vision in all directions. As a general rule, goggles with larger lenses are better for cold-weather use, providing more coverage, a wider field of view, and better airflow to help prevent the lenses from fogging up. Unlike sunglasses, goggles are bulky and inconvenient to carry when not in use. (They seldom fit in a jacket pocket.) They tend to be more affordable than sunglasses, however, with many perfectly adequate options falling in the $40 to $80 range, although you can spend well north of $100 for higher quality lenses.

Photo: Jerry and Marcy Monkman