Shades, sunnies, beach eyes, or just plain old sunglasses. Call them what you will but it’s an essential part of any beachgoing experience.It’s a bit of a conundrum that one of the most vital pieces of gear for surfers and ocean enthusiasts isn’t actually worn in the water. But given how much time ocean lovers spend staring directly at the ocean — essentially a giant mirror that reflects the powerful rays of the sun straight into the retinas — it makes sense that outside of being immersed in the water, one would try to protect those eyeballs as much as humanly possible. And if you’re doing activities on the water — like kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding — a great pair of sunglasses is essential.
A high-quality pair of shades is as much a question of style as it is proper eye health. Not to get too grim, but prolonged sun exposure can lead to an increased risk of a variety of conditions that can leave permanent damage. These days, sunglass options are virtually endless, with an overwhelming list of options depending on color, frame style, price point, and the like. The world of eyewear is also chock full of jargon; some technical, some gimmicky, and can often be difficult to navigate. Is one company’s mono-ocular-panoramic-ion coated lens better than its competitor’s, which goes by a different name, or is it all just a marketing scheme? These are the questions we aim to tackle when testing as many frames as we can get our hands on.
As surfers and general active ocean and water sports lovers, we feel that we have a good grasp on what makes a good pair of sunglasses. Many of us grew up near the ocean, and have worked in surf shops and retail outlets over the years. We’ve seen trends come and go, and know what creme has risen to the top and withstood the test of time. We also see through the noise for new sunglasses to know what makes a good pair and one that’s either overpriced or overhyped. We’ve broken that down further in our Comparison Table and Ratings Chart, below. And if you’d like to know a bit more about what makes a good pair of sunglasses we broke that down a bit further in our How To Shop For Sunglasses section.
The Best Sunglasses of 2023
Best All-Around Sunglasses: POC Will
Best Women’s Style: RAEN Huxton
Best Sunglasses for on the Water: Bajio Caballo
Best Sunglasses for Beach Sports: Costa Del Mar Tuna Alley Pro
Most Stylish Sunglasses: RAEN Rece
Best for Narrow Faces: Ray-Ban Round Metal
Best Budget Sunglasses: Sunski Treeline
Best Wrap-Around Sunglasses: Smith Boomtown
Best All-Around Sunglasses
Frame Material: Plastic
Lens Material: Nylon
Pros: Stylish frames with enough sporty-ness to go for a bike ride.
Cons: A bit understated of a look (a pro or a con, depending on your POV).
If the fact that Sweden-based POC, a company best known for outfitting some of the world’s best skiers, snowboarders, and cyclists, lands at the top of our list of sunglasses for surfers and ocean enthusiasts surprises you, you’re not alone. It surprised us as well. But, if POC lenses have been the premier choice of many in bright, high-alpine conditions where glare from the snow is serious, it’s no wonder POC’s offering would perform equally as well around the ocean. POC bills their Will frames as lifestyle frames that also offer sporty, performance attributes for multi-sport use. What we liked so much about the Will is the frames have a classic square shape that’s stylish, but they also feature some technical aspects that are great for athletic endeavors: rubber at the nose and temples to stay grippy when wet and a subtle curve that offers a better field of vision and greater comfort.
These are the frames we’d choose, for example, for a quick surf check in the morning, then to stay put in the afternoon when going on a run or mountain bike ride, or in any other pursuit that demands your shades stay put on your face. They’re understated enough, especially in the polarized all-black version, for a nice outing but technical enough for everything else. We tested the non-polarized version of the Will for this test, which was the only knock. The lenses we tested had a VLT (visible light transmission) rating of 24-15%, which worked well in cloudy conditions, but we’d really recommend going for the polarized version with 10% VLT.
Best Women’s Style
Frame Material: Zyl Acetate (Wood pulp and cotton)
Lens Material: Zeiss CR-39
Pros: Great style, solid coverage.
Cons: Oversized frames aren’t the sportiest.
While RAEN’s Huxton may be billed as a unisex style, and there are some guys that may be able to pull them off, we found them to feel a bit too feminine in the tortoise color we tested. When asked to name her top pick, our female tester (aka the author’s wife) chose the Huxton hands down for comfort, style, and clarity. As with the Rece (detailed below) and all of RAEN’s frames, the Huxton’s frames are made with bio-acetate, which creates a heavier yet more flexible frame. The oversized frames offer great coverage and are also among the most stylish we tested. Not the most sporty shades on the market. But, for ladies looking for a reliable yet stylish frame that offers great clarity of vision, look no further.
Best Sunglasses for on the Water
Frame Material: Plastic
Lens Material: Polycarbonate
Pros: Excellent color and clarity.
Cons: Large frames may be too large for some faces.
While Bajio may be one of the least familiar brands to make our list, we’re confident that this won’t be the case for long. Launched in the midst of the pandemic by a cohort that cut their teeth at Costa before it was acquired by Luxottica, Bajio has sport fishing in its DNA.
In this context, it’s no surprise that Bajio’s offering ended up becoming our choice to meet the demands of those that spend hours and hours on the water — whether on a boat, doing some flat water SUPing, or any other prolonged activity on the water. Without question, the pair of shades that stayed put on the face the best during our test was Bajio’s Caballo — this was due in large part to grippy contact points on the nose and temple. On bright full-sun days, the Caballos also offered the most clarity of vision of any pair we tested. Colors were vivid and bright while reducing glare.
For how technical the Caballos are under the hood, the tortoise frames with grey lenses also earned major style points for us. As some of the largest frames we tested, the Caballos are ideal for those looking for maximum coverage, but they may be a little too large for certain face shapes. For something narrower, Bajio’s Calda frames may be a better choice.
Best Sunglasses for Beach Sports
Frame Material: Propionate
Lens Material: Crystal
Pros: Tons of features.
Cons: Very pricey (but can be found on sale).
Anyone who has tried on a pair of Costas will likely tell you about the lens quality. It’s the real deal. Their patented 580 lens tech refers to the 580nm yellow light that the lenses keep out of your eyes. Other colors, such as green, blue, and red, come through to give stunning contrast and clarity that lives up to the hype. Add in the fact that all their lenses are polarized and it’s easy to see why Costa have been a favorite of fishermen (fisherwomen, too) and water sports enthusiasts for 40 years.
The Tuna Alley Pro is designed for long days out on the water, but we found it to be a winner on land as well. While jumping around on the sand playing volleyball, playing a game of pick up football, or even general rough housing on the beach (as it always seems to go), the frames stayed put through it all. But where other close-fitting frames have their drawbacks, these glasses stood out. The main example is in the ventilated sides and “sweat management channels” that provided a fog-free experience, even through exertion in the hot midday sun. The frames also have metal loops to attach a leash and adjustable nosepads to give you the type of features one would expect in such a premium pair of shades.
Most Stylish Sunglasses
Frame Material: Zyl Acetate
Lens Material: Zeiss CR-39 with UV coating
Pros: Bio-based frames.
Cons: Not great for active days.
RAEN has gone all-in on bio-acetate as a material for their frames, and in a world of mostly injection-molded plastic sunglasses, the frames they supplied for testing stood out. First, compared to other pairs we tested, RAEN frames had a weight to them that imbued quality construction — all RAEN sunglasses are handmade. Second, not that it has anything to do with the performance of the glasses themselves, but worth noting is that each pair of RAEN’s shades comes in a classic leather hard case, as opposed to a soft case or even a flimsy microfiber lens pouch, which is a touch that says “we took a lot of care in crafting these, so here’s something to protect them.”
We landed on RAEN’s Rece frames as our best style pick because of their classic silhouette and timeless feel. While the Rece was far from the most technical shades we tested, they definitely were the most stylish and versatile. Think being able to go effortlessly from surf check to beach day to early evening date night.
Where the Rece lost points for us was in the sporty category. These are not the first shades we’d pick, for example, to wear for a run or hike. The Rece also have a bit of a forward tilt to them that is difficult to discern when buying online. The technical term for this is pantoscopic tilt, which means the top part of the frame angles forward. Style-wise, this can be flattering for some face shapes but may not be ideal for practical use as it can let in additional light from above the frame.
For testing, we also tried the Remmy and the Huxton. We found the Remmy a little narrow for wide faces but a great option for narrower faces. The Huxton was our pick for women looking for stylish oversized frames.
Best for Narrow Faces
Frame Material: Metal
Lens Material: Crystal
Pros: Classic look, multiple size options.
Cons: Not a ton of coverage.
It’s really hard to argue with a classic that has endured for so many years. And Ray-Ban fits that description like a round peg in a round hole. Their sunglasses have achieved legendary status and are recognized the world over — you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sunglasses store that doesn’t carry at least a few styles from Ray-Ban. The Round Metal frames are a top pick when it comes to style, with a timeless fashion that looks good on almost anybody (wider faces might prefer another style like the Ray-Ban Aviators).
A favorite aspect of the Ray-Ban Round Metals is that they’re available in three different lens widths: 53, 50, and 47 millimeters. We tested the 50mm version and found them to fit great on a medium-width male face. They’re the size Ray-Ban recommends for most face sizes, but it’s nice to know that if need be, there are smaller (and larger) sizes available.
Best Budget Sunglasses
Frame Material: Recycled Polycarbonate
Lens Material: Triacetate Cellulose
Pros: Great value, removable side shields, lifetime warranty.
Cons: Solid looks but not the most stylish on this list.
“Budget” anything typically gets a bad rap. Let me start by saying that in a blind look, feel, and use test, the differences in construction, material, and lens quality of Sunski’s Treelines compared to that of other frames that retail for twice the price are entirely marginal. The Treelines perform extremely well. Full stop.
While the Treelines may be part of Sunski’s Alpine collection and designed with the mountains and snow in mind, they also were perfect for everyday use. The only pair in our test with removable side shields, this feature is particularly useful for added eye protection when hiking, on snow, or spending extended periods on the water.
Of particular note, Sunski offers a lifetime warranty on their shades. “We reserve the right to decide if your damage is covered under our Lifetime Warranty but tell us a good story, and we’ll likely be pretty lenient,” they say in the fine print. Some time ago, well before this review, I actually put this warranty to the test. I had crushed a pair of sunglasses on a trip in a manner that was entirely my fault and would have similarly broken any other pair. I emailed Sunski’s friendly customer service team and told them of my predicament, that it was entirely my fault, and they sent a replacement pair anyway. I found that sort of kindness particularly endearing, and I’m thrilled to be able to include the Treelines here today.
For those looking for a smaller, rounder shape, Sunski’s latest frame to drop, the Sunski Tera ($89), also features removable side shields.
Best Wrap-Around Style
Frame Material: Evolve bio-based
Lens Material: Polycarbonate
Pros: Wraparound style without being overly flashy.
Cons: Close fit means it’s prone to smudging and fogging.
These days, the wraparound shades that were endemic in the ’80s are having a bit of a moment. Fashion, as they say, comes full circle. But, beyond simply being a fashion choice, wraparound-style shades offer added face coverage that can be particularly useful around the water or on the mountain. If you can pull off the oversized look, that is.
Of all the wraparound styles we got our hands on for this test, we found Smith’s Boomtown to be the most understated of the bunch, which meant they could go effortlessly from beach to trail to slope without looking like you’re making a statement. They were incredibly comfortable and had a curve that offered an enhanced fit. One of the downsides of the Boomtowns is they fit somewhat close to the face, which at times led to smudging and fogging around the bridge. That said, the increased field of vision due to that closeness was a major benefit.
We also loved Smith’s Chromapop lens tech and found the clarity of vision the Boomtowns offered to be insane. While other eyewear companies equally boast about their proprietary lens tech, Smith’s Chromapop blew us away in our test. The lenses cut glare while making colors more vivid.
Best Plant-Based Sunglasses
Frame Material: Plant-based Z-Resin
Lens Material: Plant-Based Polycarbonate
Pros: Unique and colourful design.
Cons: Not great coverage on the undersides due to round shape.
Zeal Optics teamed up with artist Pat Milbery and SOS Outreach to give a colorful reboot of their classic Crowley frames. The result is a pair that we couldn’t help but smile as we put it on. The inside of the arms include a bright motif that would elicit some happy emotions every time we brought it to our face, not the least of which was a bright red heart at the temple to remind us that, at the end of the day, perhaps love really is all you need.
But style points only go so far, and we are happy to report that the lens quality of the Open Hearts Crowley sunglasses were second-to-none and provided optimal clarity in both sunny and variable conditions. They are polarized, and so will do well at the beach or lake as well. The only downside we found was that with its round shape, light could get in on the undersides much more easily than other frames so this might not be the pick for larger faces. But it’s a great unisex design, and the plant-based materials helps lead by example that you can have a great pair of sunglasses while also being kind to the planet.
Best of the Rest
Honorable Mention: Best Women’s Style
Frame Material: Plastic
Lens Material: Crystal
Pros: Incredible clarity.
Cons: Style is a bit old-school.
There really is something to be said for Costa’s 580 lens tech. The colors and contrast of the lenses, combined with the fact that every model is polarized, make these a favorite for people spending ample time near the water. While fishing and ocean sports seems to be their specialty, they also create some great stylish glasses that perform exceptionally well. The Aleta model for women checks all the boxes for looking great, but more importantly, they give stunning clarity next to the water as well.
Our tester tried out the Polycarbonate lens, but they also come in a more durable, classier feel in glass. Whatever model chosen, the difference is well noticeable.
Honorable Mention: Best for Narrow Faces
Frame Material: Acetate
Lens Material: Resin
Cons: Not the greatest face coverage.
It’s no surprise that RAEN’s frames are taking up three slots on our list. Many of the notes on construction and quality already mentioned about the Rece and the Huxton hold equally true for the Remmy. As a larger-faced human, the author’s biggest knock on the Remmy was that the round frames looked too small for his face. However, what may look odd on one face shape, may flatter another, which landed the Remmy solidly in our “narrow face” category. While they were just barely edged out by the Ray-Ban Round Metal as our top pick for narrow faces, the Remmy is a strong contender in that category and will surely be a winner for those who aren’t drawn to Ray-Ban’s wire-rimmed look.
Compared to other frames on our list, the Remmy lacked face coverage, so if max eye protection is at the top of your priority list, consider the Rece or the Will by POC. If style and quality are your primary considerations, though, and you find yourself having difficulty finding frames that don’t look giant on your face and make you look like an insect, the Remmy is your pick.
Honorable Mention: Best for On the Water
Frame Material: Plastic
Lens Material: Plastic
Pros: It floats!
Cons: Not great coverage on the sides.
The Dragon Opus is an all around solid workhorse of a sunglass, with solid round-frame style that’s never been out of fashion. Dragon’s Lumalens technology provides great visibility, and they’re polarized for better on-water performance. Speaking of on-the-water, having frames designed to float is also an incredibly helpful feature. However, what edged these out of the top spot for On-Water Sunglasses in comparison to the Bajio Caballo was the round-lens frames. They sure look good, but lose points in the coverage category, which is where the Caballos shine, and with bright light coming at you from all angles on the water, coverage matters a bit more than usual. However, for a pair of sunglasses that can transition easily from water activities to drinks on the waterfront at sunset, look no further.
Honorable Mention: Best Overall
Frame Material: Evolve bio-based
Lens Material: Polycarbonate
Pros: Excellent vision quality.
Cons: Not making any fashion statements.
The Smith Headliners were a solid pair of shades that were right up there for our best all-around. The clarity was top-notch, as we noted in Smith’s other offering, the Boomtown. They were comfortable and offered the kind of face coverage you’d expect for your standard pair of squarer-framed shades. Our only knock on the frames, if you can call it that, is that they were so understated to the point of being a bit unremarkable.
Frame Material: Plastic/rubber
Lens Material: Unlisted
Pros: Massive coverage.
Cons: Very oversized, won’t fit small faces.
The most interesting pair of shades we received for testing, without question, was POC’s Devour. Out of the box, they literally look like a pair of ski goggles in sunglass form. As such, the Devour offers great face coverage and is ideal for cyclists and skiers — the glacial version even has side shields for extreme alpine pursuits. An added design feature that allows a truly dialed-in fit is the adjustable sidearms that allow you to lengthen or retract. Overall, a solid pair of shades for active pursuits. We went with the Boomtown over the Devours for Best Wraparound style because the Devours felt a little out of place for everyday wear.
Honorable Mention: Best Overall
Frame Material: Bio Matter™
Lens Material: Plutonite (proprietary polycarbonate)
Pros: Legendary lens tech.
Cons: Frames can catch where the hinges pop out.
In testing, the Oakley Reedmace was an excellent pair of shades for clarity of vision, but the rounded frames felt like they didn’t offer sufficient coverage for larger faces. Another design note is that when folded, the hinges sort of protrude a bit which caused the frames to catch on things — necks of t-shirts, the storage bag, etc. This is a slight inconvenience in the short term. But, in the long term, our concern is this little design feature could compromise the integrity of the frames. These frames are stylish and comfortable, and feature Oakley’s Prizm Tech, a strong contender to Smith’s Chromapop for an increased definition of color, contrast, and details.
|POC Will||$130||9.0||Best All-Around Sunglasses||Stylish Yet Sporty|
|RAEN Huxton||$185||9.0||Best Women’s Style||Oversized Style|
|Bajio Caballo||$199||9.0||Best Sunglasses for on the Water||No-Slip Contact Points|
|Costa Del Mar Tuna Alley Pro||$164-$284||8.75||Best Sunglasses for Beach Sports||Patented 580 Polarized Lens Tech|
|RAEN Rece||$185||8.25||Most Stylish Sunglasses||Bio-Acetate Frames|
|Ray-Ban Round Metal||$188||8.5||Best for Narrow Faces||Multiple Widths|
|Sunski Treeline||$89||8.0||Best Budget Sunglasses||Lifetime Warranty|
|Smith Boomtown||$169-$209||7.5||Best Wrap-Around Style||Chromapop Lens Tech|
|Zeal Open Hearts Crowley||$179||8.0||Best Plant-Based Sunglasses||Plant-Based Materials, original artwork|
|Costa Del Mar Aleta||$182-$262||8.0||Honorable Mention: Best Women’s Style||580 Polarized Lens Tech|
|RAEN Remmy||$175||8.25||Honorable Mention: Best for Narrow Faces||Bio-Acetate Frames|
|Dragon Opus LL H2O||$219||8.0||Honorable Mention: Best for On the Water||Floats|
|Smith Headliner||$189||8.0||Honorable Mention: Best Overall||Classic Square Frames|
|POC Devour||$250||7.0||Best Coverage||Adjustable Sidearms|
|Oakley Reedmace||$182-212||6.5||Honorable Mention: Best Overall||Oakley Prizm Tech|
There may be no better testing ground for eyewear than a Southern California beach town, and not for the reason you may think. Sure, sunshine and a temperate climate may be Southern California’s best-known quality. But, as any resident will tell you, between foggy mornings, stubborn marine layers, and, yes, the occasional rain squall, the sun isn’t reliably shining at all hours of every day. These variable conditions often require shades that are able to offer protection in full sunshine but also aren’t too dark to be able to see in cloud cover. These conditions made testing particularly interesting.
Additionally, choosing the best sunglasses will always be a little subjective. Every person has their unique style, sensibilities, and needs. Not to mention face shape. However, for this test, we tried to center our analysis on the needs of those who spend extended periods in or around the ocean. For one, polarized lenses are essential. Second, we considered fit, comfort, and face coverage as features to evaluate for comparison purposes.
|Costa Del Mar Tuna Alley Pro||8.75||9||9||9||8|
|Ray-Ban Round Metal||8.5||8||9||7||10|
|Zeal Open Hearts Crowley||8.0||8||8||7||10|
|Costa Del Mar Aleta||8.0||8||8||7||9|
|Dragon Opus LL H2O||8.0||8||9||7||8|
How to Shop for Sunglasses
Acetate vs. Injection-Molded Plastic Frames
Sunglass frames come in a variety of materials — including wood and metal — but by and large, the most common material is plastic. And under the larger umbrella of plastics, there are two primary constructions: acetate and injection-molded plastic. Whether acetate or injection molding, many manufacturers, especially those catering to surfers and ocean enthusiasts, are leaning away from petroleum-based plastics and instead use terms like bio or plant-based. The key difference between acetate and injection-molded plastic construction is that acetate is typically produced in sheets that are then cut into the parts that are then assembled as a pair of frames. Injection molding means that a plastic material is shot into a mold to create the frame. The advantage of acetate is it’s more flexible and hypoallergenic and that the material doesn’t need to be painted, dyed, or coated to create colors and patterns — those come from the material itself. Injection molded frames are generally lighter and, since made from a mold, can be curved or take on other shapes.
Plastic vs. Glass Lenses
Most lenses are made from either glass or plastic. However, most often other words for plastic are used to sound a bit fancier, such as polycarbonate, acrylic, composite (which can use other materials) and others. Plastic lenses are usually much lighter and impact resistant than their glass counterparts. Glass lenses, while often a bit heavier, generally offer superior vision quality. The downside is that they are more prone to breaking. Most lenses these days have some sort of scratch coating, but plastic lenses are often more scratch prone. And last but not least is budget: usually if a pair of sunglasses offers both a glass and plastic version of their lenses, the glass version is generally more expensive.
Additionally, some lenses are said to include crystal, which most of the time means glass, but a more refined process. These are generally reserved for premium models with the price tag to match—but with superior optics as well.
Ultimately it will come down to what you are doing while wearing the sunglasses that will help determine whether to get plastic or glass lenses. If you need to see in the distance or are shooting photos, glass might be the call. If you’re being active and there’s a chance of impact, plastic is the way to go.
Polarized vs. Non-Polarized
For anyone that spends an extended period on or around water, polarized lenses are essential. But what does polarized mean exactly? First, it’s worth understanding what glare is and how it works. Glare typically occurs when light reflects off of a flat surface in a horizontal manner and can be intense and make it difficult to see. Think how the ocean shines and shimmers on a bright sunny day. Polarized lenses have a chemical treatment that only allows for vertical light waves to pass through, blocking glare. While typically pricier than non-polarized lenses, polarized lenses have major benefits for surfers, fishermen/women and general water enthusiasts, including reducing eye strain and allowing you to see natural features and obstacles. Many sunglass makers have their own proprietary lens treatments in addition to polarization, but our best advice is to choose polarized when and wherever possible.
Finally, a helpful concept to understand before pulling the trigger on a pair of sunglasses is VLT or visible light transmission. VLT refers to how much visible light is allowed to pass through a pair of lenses. Generally, this is expressed as a percentage; the lower the number, the darker the lens, and the higher the number, the lighter the lens. A VLT of 25% or less is generally appropriate for a bright sunny day, while on overcast and flat light days, a higher VLT is usually necessary (20-70%). Understanding VLT can be crucial when deciding what sunglasses to pull the trigger on, depending on specific use. For example, if you want a single pair of shades for a variety of conditions, from bright sun to overcast, a higher VLT might be beneficial. Whereas if you already own a pair of shades with a higher VLT and are looking for max light blocking, you’ll want to go very low VLT.
What are the Best Sunglasses for Surfing?
Surfing and sunglasses don’t usually go so well together. Not only are waves and the ocean a pretty easy place to lose sunglasses, but there’s nothing like trying to peer through a lens full of water droplets to make you question your decision to take sunglasses surfing in the first place. That said, we’ve found some styles that can reasonably be used in the water, whether that’s stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, engaging in windsports like kiteboarding, windsurfing or wing-foiling, and yes, even surfing.
If you don’t plan on getting the lenses wet (even the best hydrophobic coating will leave some water droplets on the lenses, obscuring vision), the Ombraz armless design of sunglasses makes a great companion for ocean activities. The arm-replacing cord provides a secure fit and can easily accommodate a leash for added security.
Editor’s Note: This article includes contributions by Will Sileo, with styles tested in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.