Ask LH: Do Computer Glasses Really Work?

Dear Lifehacker, My eyes often feel tired after staring at the computer all day. So I’m wondering if glasses designed for computer use actually help (for example, those yellow-tinted computer/gaming glasses). They seem pricey, and I’m a little sceptical about all the claims, but I also want to protect my vision. Should I buy a pair of these? Signed, Sore Eyes

Dear Sore,

Vision problems are unfortunately one of the hazards of too much screen time. We have previously noted several ways to prevent or reduce eyestrain, including using the 20-20-20 rule to regularly give your eyes a break and ergonomically optimising your workstation. In addition to those essential tweaks, computer eyewear could also alleviate or prevent digital eyestrain, depending on your situation. I talked to several eye health experts to find out more about these special glasses, and I also did a two-week trial comparing new specially coated glasses with older ones. Here’s what I learned.

How Computer Glasses Work

Computer glasses are special-purpose eyeglasses meant to optimise your eyesight when you’re looking at digital screens. They are designed to reduce glare (a major cause of eyestrain), increase contrast and maximise what you see through the lenses — making it easier to look at a screen for longer periods of time. Here are the two main features you will see in glasses like these:

Anti-reflective (AR) coating: anti-reflective coatings reduce glare bouncing off screens and from light sources. Specially designed computer and gaming glasses from Gunnar and VC Eyewear offer these coatings, and prescription glasses can be fitted with anti-reflective lenses as well. However, not all anti-reflective coatings are the same. My last pair of eyeglasses from two years ago had a cheap coating that was constantly catching smudges and dirt — actually causing eyestrain and vision problems as a result. I was probably cleaning those things every half hour. The glasses I got recently with more a advanced coating don’t have that problem. Picture: Crizal

Validating my experience, Dr Jeffrey Anshel, an optometrist and computer vision consultant (who was also the technical adviser for Gunnar Optiks), points out that when it comes to coatings you have two general choices: old and new. Older ones do peel and “craze”, resulting in unsightly cracks, while newer ones wear very well and have a one-year warranty. So when you’re at the eye doctor, you will want to ask for the latest coating — and perhaps buy new glasses even if your prescription hasn’t changed in the last few years, because coatings definitely have improved.

Dr Paula Gordin, an optometrist and member of the American Optometric Association, further explains the differences between anti-reflected coatings:

Some are just dippped onto the lenses and are easily scratched and can peel off. Some are “baked on the lens” or “ionized into the lens matrix” during the lens making process. I personally wear the very best AR coating [Crizal Sapphire UV] as I work on a computer and under fluorescent lighting all day long. I recommend the same to my patients on the computer and with those with glare complaints.

Colour tints: Some computer glasses also have an unmistakable (usually yellow) tint designed to increase the contrast on the screen and filter out the uncomfortable/harsh light spectrums so your eye muscles relax. The tinted glasses are signatures of Gunnar and VC Eyewear glasses, but tints can be applied to other glasses as well.

Costs: Gunnar glasses retail start at $US79 for the non-prescription versions, but you can often find sales on them. Prescription versions of the Gunnars, however, can cost several hundred dollars. Anti-reflective coating brands for prescription (and non-prescription) glasses include Crizal, Zeiss and Teflon. The coating alone will set you back quite a bit. Mine were $US150 in addition to the cost of the lenses and frame.

So Are They Worth It? The Effectiveness of Computer Glasses

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It: If you aren’t experiencing any eye problems, you can just stop here. Specially coated and/or computer eyeglasses won’t do anything for you (other than geekify your look). In fact, they could be a hindrance. Dr Robert Noecker, an ophthalmologist and Director of Glaucoma for Opthalmic Consultants of Connecticut, notes that:

Computer eyewear does not necessarily prevent eye strain in an already optimised environment. Also, the range that the eyes can sweep from one side to the other is maximised without any eyewear. The frame edges limit this range of motion and may actually hinder people more who are not getting much benefit from wearing the glasses. Also eyeglasses get smudges which can interfere with vision as well.

But If You Do Have Eyestrain or Any Discomfort, They Are Probably Worth It: Many people experience digital eye strain and simply ignore it. Dr Bazan owner of Park Slope Eye in Brooklyn and a member of The Better Vision Institute on the Vision Council, says:

People are so accustomed to their eyes feeling tired at the end of the day, they just accept it. Just because it is normal, does not mean that it’s ok. Your eye doctor will work with you and help to get those eyes feeling better!

He notes these advantages of the different types of glasses:

Eyeglasses with the premium anti-reflective coating help to ensure that your vision remains clear by keeping dust and fingerprints from appearing on your lenses. You will also want to look for glasses that include a small bump, which will provide just enough of a boost in power that the print on screen becomes slightly larger, thus decreasing eye strain. In addition, most computer glasses can help increase contrast, which makes it easier for your eyes to focus on a computer screen.

A few studies and personal experience back this up. A clinical study/survey by New York University College of Medicine of 121 patients, for example, found that 69 per cent of them preferred AR-coated lenses over non-coated ones and reported lower pain or vision problems due to glare. 79 per cent of them chose Transition lenses (the kinds that adapt to light) over clear ones.

For my own part, getting anti-reflective glasses is a no-brainer for me, because I have to wear prescription glasses anyway, and my eyeballs always feel like they are being squeezed out of their sockets. The newer premium coatings are much easier to keep clean. I wore my old glasses for a week, then the newer ones, and the difference in eye comfort is amazing. I honestly think this is the closest I have ever felt to seeing as clearly as someone who doesn’t wear glasses. Picture: Matt Chan/Flickr

As for non-prescription/special eyewear glasses like those from Gunnar and VC Eyewear: Reviews for them are mostly positive around the web; our own Whitson Gordon wears Gunnars, and Jason Chen found prescription Gunnars helped with his eye issues (so he could play 75 hours of Skyrim in a week and a half). A Gunnar market test of 103 patients found that most of them said the computer eyewear significantly improved their eye fatigue and dry-eye symptoms (of course, this Gunnar test should be taken with a grain of salt).

Why Computer Glasses Seem Like Such a Hoax: Computer eyewear companies like Gunnar Optiks really hype up their products and use infomercial-like tactics and conventions (trademarking every name and using other “XTREME” marketing lingo). So it’s no wonder people are sceptical and think they’re just gimmicks.

However, Krista Anderson, an optometrist and co-owner of Pointe Vision Care in Grosse Pointe Woods notes in an interview with Ars Technica that most of the features of computer eyewear like this are really ones she recommends to patients anyway (just not super-hyped-up like Gunnar digital performance eyewear): anti-reflective coatings, tints and so on.

Gunnar’s claims about the wraparounds keeping moisture in your eyes, however, probably isn’t true (we had our doubts). In a clinical study by Pacific University of Oregon, researchers used two control pairs of eyeglasses similar to Gunnar eyewear and tested 38 subjects under glare and dry-air conditions. After measuring the patients’ tear volume and squinting and blinking rates, they found no significant difference between the Gunnar glasses and the controls. So you might not want to get Gunnar glasses solely if you are rubbing your eyes constantly because they are dry. More effective recommendations from Dr Noecker:

Increasing the humidity of the environment is helpful with a humidifier if possible- electronic equipment dries the air. Taking breaks to relax the eye muscles is helpful, using artificial tears to improve lubrication of the eye surface and remembering to blink more (blink rate is reduced 2-3 less than normal with computer use).

So Should You Buy Them? Whether or not computer glasses will be worth it and work for you is subjective, because, as Dr Anshel notes, factors include your visual abilities and computer usage, work environmental conditions and your viewing habits.

Before you spring for special glasses, make sure you have first set up your workstation and adjusted your computer habits for optimum eye health. We have lots of advice to help you out:

After following all those guidelines, if eyestrain or other vision problems still plague you, take the advice from Ars Technica:

Our advice if you’re interested in something along these lines? Go to the Gunnar Optik site and create a pair of glasses with the features you want, and check out the price. Then go to a local optometrist and see if they can beat the price with the same set of features. Buy whichever is cheaper.

Many optical shops have return policies and warrantees (Gunnar and VC Eyewear issue refunds within 30 days), so you can test the computer eyewear out yourself to see (literally) if it makes a difference for you.


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