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Cheap Sunglasses Buying Guide

We found several brands that stand out for high quality and budget pricing. First up are JiMarti (starting at $10) and Suncloud Polarized Optics (starting at $37), both featuring polycarbonate lenses that provide 100 percent UV protection.

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All the Suncloud sunglasses have polarized lenses, while many of the JiMarti products do as well, and both offer a variety of tints. These brands are backed with limited warranties that cover breakage, although no warranty covers scratches. The same must-have features also land Black Flys (starting at $40) and Sunbelt (starting at $22) sunglasses on our list. We are less impressed with Body Glove (starting at $22), largely because these cheap sunglasses stack up poorly in user reviews and the lens material is unknown.

Several factors make the task of identifying the best budget sun-protecting eyewear particularly challenging. First, retail outlets everywhere -- both online and off -- carry fashion sunglasses that exude glamour and tempt frugal shoppers with low prices. Even some better-known brands like Steve Madden (starting at $26) lure wearers with fashion-forward styles but are limited in terms of necessary features. Second, many reviews barely touch on the features that define a good pair of cheap sunglasses but instead focus on the way the sunglasses look. Third, many users probably feel that inexpensive sunglasses just aren't worth the time it takes to write a review. And fourth, there are so many styles that few attract large numbers of comments.

Note that this buying guide is about non-prescription sunglasses. For a list of websites that sell low-cost prescription sunglasses, see our buying guide to the best cheap eyeglasses.

What We Looked For in the Specs

UV Protection.

The most essential function of a pair of sunglasses is to protect your eyes from the sun's UV rays. A Mayo Clinic expert warns that too much exposure to UV rays will seriously damage your eyes (not to mention your skin). Not all sunglasses with UV protection are created equal, however. Look for sunglasses that specifically say "100 percent UV protection" or "UV400" on the label. This indicates that the lenses block all harmful wavelengths, up to 400 nanometers.

To be on the safe side, read the fine print and select a pair of sunglasses with an explicit declaration of full UV protection. The brands sitting on our best cheap sunglasses list -- JiMarti, Sunbelt, Black Flys, and Suncloud -- make their full lineup with UV protection and specify the level of protection. Steve Madden designer-brand sunglasses, by contrast, feature UV protection without specifying how much on many of the styles.

Polycarbonate Lens Material.

Sunglass lenses typically are made with CR-39, glass, or polycarbonate. CR-39 is a hard-resin plastic that's commonly found in eyeglasses and prescription sunglasses. Glass is very durable but heavy, and not well-suited for the fashionable outsize or wrap-around sunglasses you might covet. On the other hand, How Stuff Works notes that glass and polycarbonate lenses are free of distortion, meaning that visual perception is true and unmarred by waves, wiggles, or bulges.

Polycarbonate is a lightweight synthetic plastic that's very durable, impact resistant, and absorbs 100 percent of UV rays. It is the material of choice for the best cheap sunglasses -- especially if you wear them for sports -- and is also used in many mid-range and high-end sunglasses. Our top picks all feature lenses made from polycarbonate plastic, as do many models made by Kenneth Cole (starting at $20), which are more fashion-oriented than the sunglasses on our list.

SOLSTICEsunglasses.com

Other lens materials occasionally show up in non-prescription sunglasses. Some sunglasses don't specify a lens material -- many from Steve Madden and Body Glove, for example -- but a buying guide from outdoor retailer REI notes that cheaper alternatives to polycarbonate, such as acrylic, are more prone to image distortion and cracking or breaking. Oakley sunglasses (starting at $70 and climbing to $1,500) feature specialty lenses made of a proprietary material called Plutonite, which is advertised as providing the best possible clarity and high-impact protection.

Polarized Sunglasses.

Whether you're driving, skiing, snowboarding, or taking part in any other outdoor activity, your vision could be affected by glare from the sun. Glare typically comes from light that reflects off horizontal surfaces such as wet roads; that reflected light is said to be "polarized." How Stuff Works explains that, because most of this glare comes from horizontally polarized light, the chemical film on polarized sunglass lenses is oriented vertically to filter it out. The most inexpensive sunglasses lack polarized lenses, but some products in the cheap price segment, including select models from Sunbelt, JiMarti, Black Flys, and Body Glove, are polarized, as are all the sunglasses in Suncloud's Polarized Optics line.

Tinted Sunglasses.

Tinted sunglasses also help reduce glare. The various tint choices not only appeal to fashion-conscious shoppers but also affect the way that you see. An optometrist at All About Vision recommends a gray tint, or a combination of gray and green, to reduce overall brightness without distorting colors. Amber and brown tints are also good all-purpose choices because they block higher-frequency colors (e.g., blue and violet) and improve clarity -- although they do tend to make a mush of color perception. Yellow-tinted sunglasses likewise mangle colors, but they're especially useful in reducing blue light, which causes the most glare (think of snow on a sunny day), and they make everything look vivid. Purple or rose tints enhance the contrast against blue or green backgrounds, while green-tinted sunglasses provide the best contrast of all and reduce glare by filtering out some blue light.

Suncloud Polarized Optics sunglasses come in a variety of tints, depending on the type of frame, and the possibilities far exceed those offered by the other brands on our list. JiMarti sunglasses, including the JM01 (starting at $22), are available with gray, brown, blue, or yellow tint. The Halo women's sunglasses (starting at $30) from Sunbelt come in brown and gray tints, while the Black Flys Micro Fly line (starting at $40) is available with brown or grey tint (and a variety of frames). A snowboarder's post at Overstock says tinted sunglasses provide welcome relief from the sun's glare off the snow.

Extra Lens Coatings.

Additional coating options on sunglass lenses enhance product quality and vision clarity. These features generally cost more and are found primarily in higher-end sunglasses. That said, we did find some cheap sunglasses with one or two special coatings. Select JiMarti models, including the JM01, feature an anti-reflective coating. Others in the brand's stable, like the JiMarti AV5 aviators (starting at $13), boast anti-scratch and anti-fog hydrophobic water repellant lens coatings. The Sunbelt line is also scratch-resistant.

Review continues below

Sunglasses Warranty.

Sunglasses break -- they drop, someone sits on them, etc. If a warranty makes you feel better about your purchase, JiMarti, Sunbelt, Suncloud, and Black Flys all provide one. The JiMarti brand stands out with the best: a lifetime breakage warranty that replaces any broken pair for the original user (one time only).

by Raechel Conover (Google+ Profile)

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