Eye “glasses”? Nah. Plastics help protect and improve our vision

Professor Plastics

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Women reading a journal

Notice that I wear glasses? I have since middle school when my parents bought me the nerdiest pair they could find.

Being the proud geek, I asked them something they couldn’t really answer: why are they called glasses? I mean, there wasn’t anything “glass” about them. Plastic frames, plastic lenses, metal hinges. They mumbled something about glass being used in ye olde times. Very unsatisfying answer.

Now that I’m Professor Plastics, I revel in correcting my students who mention my eyeglasses. “Uh… that’s plastic eye protectors,” I say. They just look at me funny and ask if that’s going to be on the quiz.

If you’ve never thought about it (I have!), it’s pretty remarkable how plastics help protect and improve our sight. Eyeglasses of all types continue to evolve and advance to the point where they now can help folks see colors … for the first time in their lives. Pretty cool.

Here’s a quick look how plastics and various technologies combine to enable and protect our sight… while making a bit of a fashion statement in the process.

Corrective eyewear (See: you don’t have to call them glasses.)

Doctor fitting plastic eyeglass on a woman

Did you know that President John F. Kennedy didn’t like being photographed wearing eyewear? But when he tried on his first pair of innovative bi-focals in 1963, he wore them to one of his last press conferences. Today’s advanced “progressive” lenses do away with that distracting bi-focal line between the upper and lower lenses.

Most corrective lenses today are made with various types of plastics such polycarbonate, CR-39, and Trivex. Each plastic has its comparative advantages: naturally UV resistant or somewhat lighter or easily tinted or more scratch-resistant than others. But each is lightweight and has one really big benefit—they’re shatter resistant. Which is cool since it’s probably not the best idea to place breakable lenses close to your eyeballs.

These plastic lenses are crafted into myriad prescriptions and shapes to deal with the various “opias” and “isms” involved in eye disease.

Bendy frames

Like lenses, plastic frames run the gamut and can make us look professional, hipster, nerdy, younger… whatever. The plastics used to make frames vary, as well, but they typically are cellulose acetate (often called Zyl) and nylon, which is amazingly durable. A newish ultra-lightweight plastic is making inroads into kids’ eyewear. It helps create amazingly flexible frames and can be color customized for kids 6 – 18 to help eyewear be not only more comfortable but more appealing, too. I wish I had these back when… oh, never mind.

Sunglasses (Ugh, there’s that “glasses” word again…)

A Couple Wearing Plastic Sunglasses

Sunglasses and plastics go together like hand and glove.

When you couple the great outdoors with eye protection, plastics just make sense. The frames can be designed to cling snugly to your head while biking, skiing, boating, or running. And your sunglass lenses likely are made with shatter-resistant plastics that can stand up to dropping, soaking, and overly inquisitive kids. Many manufacturers make sunglass lenses with high-performance plastics that are both tough and clear—such as polycarbonate, the material that also is used to make “bullet resistant glass.”

Add UV protection to help against damage such as cataracts (polycarbonate lenses are nearly 100 percent UV resistant). Add glare resistance to protect against potentially dangerous compromised sight. Then add countless styles from aviators to wayfarers to cat eyes… and it’s clear that sunglasses and plastics really do go together.

I could write an entire article on the benefits of plastic sunglasses. Or you could just read this one.

Goggles (for sports)


Let’s say you’re playing a sport that involves flying balls,
high winds, spraying snow/water/dirt, or bodily collisions. And let’s say you read that emergency rooms treat 40,000+ sport-related eye injuries per year. And let’s say you’d reeeeeeally like to be able to use your eyes for the rest of your life. And let’s say you get to choose the qualities you want in eye protection.

I bet you’d describe protective qualities that scream: plastics. Impact resistant. Fog resistant. Clear. Durable. Lightweight and comfortable. And cool looking.

Sports goggles made with plastics have all these qualities and more. Many frames are made with tough nylon, and lenses typically are made with polycarbonate (and remember polycarbonate’s UV protection, great for outdoor sports!). These plastic goggles can wrap around your head, provide padding on your nose and ear, incorporate prescription bifocals, protect your contact lenses, provide anti fogging technologies, and even include polarized “sunglass” lenses.

Goggles (for job safety)

Covestro Welding Glasses

Image: Covestro

Remember that kid in chemistry class who thought it would be cool to mix an acid and a base in a glass beaker? Apparently he just didn’t believe what the teacher warned. I’m thankful that a little bit of plastics (goggles) can help protect us from these overly zealous high school “scientists.”

This same type of protection is required in millions of jobs, from construction to chemistry labs to welding. And some of these goggles are really high tech. For example, one problem with certain glare-reducing tinted lenses is they can change your color perception—this could require workers to remove their goggles so they can accurately see, putting their eyes at risk. Newly developed tinted polycarbonate goggles allow welders to recognize colors—increasing the likelihood the goggles will stay on and shield the eyes.

Color vision


Did you know that about 8 percent of men cannot see some colors? Called color vision deficiency (CVD), most people call it color blindness. Regardless its name, there is no medical cure.

But I’ve noticed a fairly new technology to enhance color vision popping up in my Facebook feed and spreading on YouTube. A Berkeley, CA, based company adds proprietary filters to polycarbonate lenses that allow many people with CVD to see colors for the first time.

Just imagine that feeling. You can get some idea by checking out the multiple videos on YouTube or news channels like this one.

And just try not to choke up.

So … you ready to stop calling them “eyeglasses?” Didn’t think so…