Don’t want to spend three figures on premium shades? Here, we rounded up the best budget sunglasses.
Be honest: Do you really need expensive sunglasses? Unless you’re in need of a particular prescription, most folks aim low when buying outdoor eyewear. But just because we’re on the cheap doesn’t mean we can’t find quality.
We’ve assembled a trio of sub-$20 shades and a roster of polarizing tests to see which budget brand earns its day in the sun.
Here’s a quick shot of our three contestants, moving from left to right (above). First are the Gamma Ray Classics ($7), followed by the Luenx Aviators ($17) and the ZeroUV Horn Rimmed ($12).
Amazon’s prices fluctuate a bit with each of these, but you can generally count on the order of expense to remain the same.
Let’s cover a few notes before we roll into testing. For daily wear, the Luenx proved to be the most comfortable. Both the ZeroUV and Gamma share a flat-face design, which sent major reflections off my skin and onto the inner surface of the lens. This impaired my personal visibility, but your experience may vary.
All advertise 100% UV400 protection via the polarized lenses, though Gamma Ray specifically touts its “impact and scratch resistant TAC or polycarbonate lenses.” While the ZeroUV and Gamma share a plastic frame construction, Luenx ships its glasses with what’s advertised as an “antioxidant frame.” With the help of a magnet, I’ve translated this to “stainless steel.”
Despite having similar frames, there are some noticeable differences between the Gamma and ZeroUV. The blue-tinted Zero features slightly taller lenses and a narrower nose bridge while the orange Gamma is a bit shorter. The Gamma Ray also features enclosed hinges, providing the most durable swing system of the group.
But, what about the overall durability, visibility, and cleaning? Onto the testing!
The Dreaded Drop Test
What’s the most likely misfortune to befall your sunglasses? If you’re like me, it’s feeling them slip from your head and plummet to the pavement. So naturally, this was the first test I put them through.
First up was the Gamma. I stood on my porch, held them at eye level, and let them drop 6 feet to the concrete. I figured 10 drops would represent the typical lifespan of cheap eyewear, and the first contestant passed with only minor scuffs.
So, if the price-leading Gamma made it through 10, you’d figure this test would be no problem for the others. This, folks, is why we test our hypotheses. The Luenx aviators lost a lens after five drops while the ZeroUV’s lens popped out after just three. I managed to snap each back into place, but my expectations for this showdown began to shift.
Winner: Gamma Ray
Sparklers and Smoke
I know, my neighbors thought this was weird too. But think about it: Sunglasses exist to protect your eyes. Whenever I’m lighting my grill or leaning down to blow into a campfire, I flip my shades into place.
This is carried over from my day job, which requires me to wear safety goggles much of the time. So the idea of sunglasses as protection from more than just UV rays comes as second nature. Plus, how many silly beer and fashion commercials have you seen with folks running around with sunglasses and sparklers?
After a quick run to the local fireworks, sausage, and cheese shop (hello, Wisconsin), I was ready to proceed. I set the sunglasses on the damp mud, positioned a sparkler above each, and lit a match.
When the smoke cleared, I was left with a decisive result. Both the Luenx and ZeroUV models had taken a few significant hits, with melt marks burned into each of their lenses.
The Gammas, while slightly marred by the sparks, showed no significant injury. They may not be welding grade, but they’re more than capable of warding off a stray spray.
Winner: Gamma Ray
Bring on the Beach
Hotdogs and hamburgers, marshmallows and campfires, sunglasses and shorelines — these are natural outdoor pairings. But what else do we need at the beach? If you’re pale like me, “sunscreen” is the answer.
But, if you’ve ever smeared lotion on your shades, you know how difficult it can be to get the lenses clean. So, I pulled out a can of spray-on sunscreen and slathered the trio in SPF 70.
Next, it was time for the contenders to face another of their mortal enemies: sand. I dragged each pair through some fine-grain dirt, resulting in a sticky, scratchy mess. Just look at these things.
Gross, right? If I’d been on a gorgeous coastal beach, I’d have dipped them in the surf to clear this mess up. Landlocked as I am, it was time to improvise. I filled a large bowl with water and a generous portion of salt, and in went the slimy sunglasses. After half an hour, the makeshift seawater had done little to clear the picture.
Still, the soak session wasn’t in vain. It revealed some of the damage done by the sand, with each pair showing significant etching on the lenses. We’ll call this round a draw, but a thorough cleaning was required before crowning a winner.
Dishwasher Deep Clean
How does one salvage a pair of cheap sunglasses? Most folks would toss them in the nearest trash bin if they got this ghastly. But I had a dishwasher that needed to be loaded, so I figured this test would benefit from a high-heat cycle. Are sunglasses considered top-rack-only items?
The instruction manuals didn’t say, so I risked dropping them in next to the silverware.
Now, this result will be a little confusing. While the Gamma lost some of its reflective coating during the drying process, it somehow retained the best visibility of the group.
The Luenx and ZeroUV came out looking better, but their lenses are now cloudier than an English autumn. I can’t wear them without squinting, rendering them all but unusable.
Winner: Gamma Ray
The Best Budget Sunglasses: The Winner
This one’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Not only did the Gamma Ray win or tie for every test, but it also emerged as the only pair I’d still wear.
Despite the low price point, these shades stood up to the full array of punishment. They’ll live the rest of their life in camping bags or the glove compartment of my car, ready in the event that my wife or I forget our regular sunglasses.
Unless the dog needs them. They look pretty good on her.