How to Select The Proper Sunglass Lens Color for Your Riding Conditions

When it comes to sunglasses for cycling, you have a seemingly endless array of options. Sunglass frames in colors to match your bike, lenses for every possible lighting situation, and some even have a built-in MP3 player!

But just one of these options will really affect your performance – the lens color. I’m no optometrist, but I’ve worn many a sunglass lens and have a pretty darn good feel as to what to wear, and when. (Plus, I’ve studied light as a photographer, and the principles apply here, too.)

Here’s a guide covering what lens to use for the conditions in which you ride:

 

oakley sunglasses gray lenses

Black/Gray Lenses

Black, gray, and/or smoke lenses are best for bright conditions – they dim the bright sunlight to ease the strain on your eyes. While the lenses do darken your vision, gray does not alter color, so everything remains the same color.

Gray also makes a great lens color for driving sunglasses.

Best for: road rides, especially on sunny days.

Not for: mountain biking. The dark lens may be too dark for trail use, especially if you are dealing with shady areas and shadows. Gray won’t improve contrast, clarity, or depth perception, either, and those things come in handy on singletrack.

 

smith sunglasses brown lenses

Brown Lenses

Brown is a good “all around” lens color choice. It is dark enough to save your eyes in bright conditions, but brown also improves contrast, clarity, and depth perception. Plus, it really enhances shades of green (i.e. trees, bushes, and grass.)

Brown does this by filtering out blue light waves.

Best for: mountain biking in good weather.

Not for: night riding.

 

oakley sunglasses amber lenses

Amber Lenses

Amber is somewhere between a light brown and a dark yellow lens. It will block blue light, which greatly increases contrast, making it a good choice when rocks and roots are jumping out at you from the shadows.

Best for: mountain biking under cloudy skies or on dimly lit trails.

Not for: bright, sunny days.

 

tifosi sunglasses red lenses

Red, Rose, and Vermilion Lenses

Red lenses, usually referred to as “rose” or “vermilion,” will increase contrast and brighten cloudy, dreary days. These lenses will distort colors, however, so don’t wear them in situations where you need to see perfect shades of color. (That’s not necessarily bad, though, because sometimes this distortion is pleasant and easy on your eyes.)

Best for: rides in cloudy, hazy conditions.

Not for: bright, sunny days, or situations where you must identify poisonous snakes by their color.

 

tifosi sunglasses orange lenses

Orange Lenses

Orange comes in somewhere between red, brown, and yellow lenses, and as such, works well in darker, cloudy weather.

Best for: mountain biking on hazy, cloudy days.

Not for: bright, sunny days.

 

smith sunglasses yellow lenses

Yellow Lenses

I have found yellow lenses to be my favorite for foggy, hazy conditions. Yellow increases clarity so you can actually see where you are going, even if you’re in dense fog.

Best for: road rides in the early morning fog.

Not for: bright, sunny days.

 

tifosi sunglasses clear lenses

Clear Lenses

Clear lenses do not alter your vision, so they work great in dark conditions when you still need to protect your eyes from dirt, debris, and harmful UV rays.

Best for: dark conditions, such as night riding.

Not for: bright, sunny days.

 

tifosi sunglasses green lenses

Green Lenses

I had a pair of fishing sunglasses that used green lenses. They will enhance your perception of red and yellow light, and increase contrast much like brown lenses.

Best for: a fishing trip (when the fishing hole requires some mountain biking to reach it.)

Not for: bright, sunny days on the road bike.

 

oakley sunglasses blue lenses

Blue Lenses

I haven’t found a good use for blue lenses when it comes to cycling, because they make things look funky. And if you want to filter out blue light to increase contrast and depth-perception, blue lenses just ruin that.

Best for: a fashion show.

Not for: road or mountain biking.

 

oakley sunglasses photochromic lenses

Photochromic (or “Transitions”) Lenses

These are the lenses that transition from clear to a dark gray color depending on the sun. If you’re out in the sun, they’ll be dark gray; if you’re in the shade, they will be either a very light gray or clear.

Best for: road rides, when the weather is changing or you’re going in and out of wooded areas. They may also be a good choice for 24 hour mountain bike races if you only want to carry one pair of sunglasses.

Not for: mountain biking during the afternoon. The lens won’t transition quickly enough if you go from a sunny section into a dark, shadowy section, and brown would be a better choice, anyway.

 

Sunglass Lens Summary

In the end, you only need a few different lenses to get by. It seems it would be ideal to own 10 different lenses, but in reality, it’s a hassle to change your lenses all the time (especially if you are on vacation or doing a multi-day race.)

So here are the popular lenses…

Get gray lenses if most of your rides are on the road in nice weather.

Go with brown lenses if you are a mountain biker.

If you venture out in rain or fog, get some red, yellow, or orange lenses for those conditions.

But… if you were getting just one pair, I’d say brown is the way to go. Brown is great in the woods, especially on shadowy singletrack (due to increased contrast and depth perception offered,) and it’s not bad on the road, even in the sun (since it is dark enough to dim the brightness.)

*TIP* Whatever lens color you get, be sure the lens is shatterproof. Most lenses will be polycarbonate, which is the ideal material. Polycarbonate lenses are shatterproof, durable, and they filter out 100% of the harmful UVA and UVB rays. (Yes, even the clear lenses do this.)

Photo credits: Oakley | Smith | Tifosi

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25 Comments so far

  1. Buzz on July 23rd, 2008

    thanks! I’ve always wondered if I was getting the right kind of glass.

  2. chris on August 30th, 2009

    I was just wondering what color lenses would be right for my morning rides, which tend to get foggy. This is very helpful and I’m going to try the yellow ones. Thanks!

  3. radz on October 15th, 2009

    i like to use the brown lens when riding. very clear vision

  4. Deal on April 16th, 2010

    I’ve had quality grey lenses before, but no matter what, they feel uncomfortable for my eyes. However, I love brown/tan lenses, I can wear them for hours. And as a benefit, they make nearly every dark haired woman look like a hot redhead, lol!

  5. Matt on June 16th, 2010

    thanks! this was great and helped a lot

  6. Dave Taillefer on September 19th, 2010

    I have heard that ‘red’ lenses are dangerous for your eyes. I use them regularly in cloudy or canopy covered rides. I was also considering buying a pair for my day to day sunglasses. Do you know if ‘red’ is in fact bad for your eyes? I assume it allows infrared in.. but I honestly don’t know.

    – Dave

  7. David on September 19th, 2010

    Thanks for this great article. It really hepled me make a choice.

  8. Levi on September 20th, 2010

    @Dave

    I’ve never heard that red lenses are bad for your eyes. Perhaps they let more light through than a dark smoke lens (duh,) but that’s what makes them great for overcast conditions.

    Personally I’d choose a light brown over red for day-to-day sunglasses, but I wouldn’t be scared away from red if that’s what you want.

    What it comes down to for me is, any color sunglasses (even clear) are better than no sunglasses at all!

  9. Rich on November 13th, 2010

    Went with the brown on the transitional lens.
    HUGE improvement over the polarized sunglasses I’d been using
    Eliminated all the ‘blind spots’ I was having when we passed under overpasses.
    Sence I also snowshoe (bright white reflective)in the winter I may look into the grey for the sunglass only option.
    (wear prescription and went with polycarbonate)

  10. Bill on November 23rd, 2010

    My neurosurgeon advised me to wear green sunglasses to prevent migraines that cause partial loss of vision apparently due to bright sunlight. Apparently they were first used by aviators back in the 1920s. Anyone else heard about the advantages of green?

  11. Mark Scott on February 23rd, 2011

    My eyes are especially light sensitive. On hazy days with lots of scattered light the grey/green lenses weren’t as comfortable to my eyes as the brown lens is even though a brown lens seems to let in more light. The brown lens filters more of the scattered blue light which is noticeably more comfortable to my eyes. Plus the brown lens seems to enhance color and contrast much more than the grey or green lens.

  12. mur. on March 12th, 2011

    very informative.

    would like to know which lens tint offers the best vision for urban cycle commuting at night, under orange(y) sodium street lights.

    many thanks.

  13. Levi on March 14th, 2011

    @Mur

    Interesting question. I haven’t trialed any lens colors under street lights.

    I’d probably still want clear lenses since it’s night though.

  14. ahmad on June 2nd, 2011

    I use orange sunglasses with a tint of brown when i ride in the morning when its slightly foggy outside, they really help

  15. lynch on July 26th, 2011

    Rich said: “HUGE improvement over the polarized sunglasses I’d been using”

    wow, I swear by my polarized brown/amber glasses, the reduction in glare alone is worth it. I fish as well and polarized lenses are essential for seeing ‘through’ the water. But the same light filtering helps with driving and biking for me.

    If you want to try a pair of polarized, you can pick up a reasonably priced of amber, brown, green at a place like Dick’s in the fishing section. Give’m a try!

  16. luiz felipe on October 15th, 2011

    Nice article, thanks!

  17. Rahman on May 5th, 2012

    Thanks a lot for your useful information. It helped me to find out which lens colour is suitable for me.

  18. John on October 3rd, 2012

    For many years I was pedaling home at 3:30 am. When I did, most of the time I was on well lighted streets. Part of my route was on a narrow, winding, 2-lane road of about 3 miles with only 2 street lights. On that road, and for all my night riding, I wore yellow lenses. They heightened my view off all the little “pitty-my-rims” holes in the road early enough to avoid them, and they cut the headlights enough, also making them very visible before they were close to me.

  19. Donald on June 24th, 2013

    I prefer a brown or gray lens because they almost completely reduce glare. Now I do have to be honest I don’t use my sunglasses for cycling as I use them for fishing. However this is one of the best well written articles on lens colors and I have to say If I were to apply this to fishing which in my case I did its a great article. Thank you for all of the useful information again. Interesting to see a new perspective on uses for different colored lenses. Thanks again!

  20. Stephane on July 26th, 2013

    I love these all sunglasses but my favorite is Oakley Racing Jacket Series sunglasses.

  21. Mike on August 20th, 2013

    For those of you talking about polorized as being better, keep in mind there are still losses. For a polarized lens, exactly half of the light is block, which means a decrease in intensity. For night riding, you would most likely want as much light as possible, since there is already a deficiency in light.

  22. Levi on August 20th, 2013

    @Mike

    Yep, that’s important to keep in mind. My clear and orange Jawbone lenses (that I use at night and in low light) are regular, non-polarized lenses.

  23. andreass on August 26th, 2013

    Hi.
    could you please tell what brand and model are amber colored glasses?
    http://coachlevi.com/images/sunglassguide-amber.jpg

    Thank you in advnce! :)

  24. Levi on August 26th, 2013

    @Andreass

    I believe those are the Oakley Half Jacket 2.0 with copper frame and amber lens. Also check out the “Straight Jacket.”

  25. DaQuan Hanks on December 26th, 2013

    Black lenses look the coolest.

    Fact!

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