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This post was most recently updated on June 2nd, 2020
Whenever you go purchase glasses you are always given a variety of different choices when it comes to lens materials. All the different types of lens materials vary in weight, thickness, scratch resistance, and impact resistance. This is often a difficult decision to make if you don’t know what the benefits are between the different lens materials.
Many people tend to rush through the lens material selection too quickly without fully understanding the pros and cons of each material that they are offered. Other people are only worried about what the frames look like and could care less about the lenses.
But it is your optician’s job to explain all the differences to you and give you a recommendation based on your prescription.
Plastic vs. Polycarbonate Lenses
Today we are going to be talking specifically about plastic vs polycarbonate lenses and what the major difference is between the lens materials.
Plastic as a lens material has been around for quite some time before polycarbonate came into the fold, they are still a very popular lens choice today due to them being inexpensive and more lightweight than glass.
Polycarbonate lens didn’t truly gain traction among the optical industry until more recently due to various problems with the material clarity and manufacturing. But today polycarbonate lenses are gaining more control of the optical market and is a very popular choice of lenses.
So let’s dive in and take a look at what the differences are between these two very similar but different materials.
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Plastic Lenses (CR-39)
Plastic lenses or also known as CR-39 is the most common optical lens material you will find. The CR stands for “Columbia Resin” which is the polymer that the material is made out of and the 39 means that there were 38 other “Columbia Resin’s” that didn’t make the cut for optical lenses.
Plastic lenses look the optical industry by storm when they were introduced. Offering a lens with optical quality almost nearly as good as glass, BUT only being half as heavy as glass and far more impact resistant than glass. Although at the time plastic lenses had
Fast forward to modern-day, plastic lenses are still the most popular lens material because it does still have many benefits though it does have some downsides to it as well. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.
Pros and Cons of Plastic Lenses
- Great Optical Quality
- Lightweight – Half the weight of Glass
- More Impact Resistant than Glass
- Accepts Tints
- Vulnerable to scratches
- No UV Protection without added coating.
One of the best benefits of the plastic lens is how inexpensive they are. You can usually find some single vision lenses for around $30 and some bifocals for $50. Plastic lenses also have a higher Abbe value which causes less chromatic aberrations. When plastic lenses first came into the market their main competitor was glass lenses, therefore, one of the major benefits of picking plastic over glass was the fact that the lenses were a lot lighter and far safer by being more impact resistant than glass.
Plastic lenses can accept tint colors for the people that like a light tint on their lenses. These tints are available in a variety of colors including, brown, gray, yellow, red, blue, rose, green, and more.
Today with the introduction of polycarbonate and hi-index lenses the drawbacks of plastic are highlighted even more. Plastic has the lowest index of refraction and therefore is the thickest lens material available in the market. Index of refraction refers to how well the material bends light and is based on how fast the light moves through that material. A higher index of refraction also means denser material and therefore thinner lenses.
Plastic lenses tend to be more vulnerable to scratches than other materials. The plastic material itself is very vulnerable to scratches and hard scratch-resistant coatings have been developed as a solution to this problem. Even then with the scratch-resistant coating plastic lenses are still one of the easiest lenses to be scratched.
Lastly, plastic lenses don’t come with built-in UV protection, therefore it is important that UV protection is added to these lenses to protect your eyes from the harmful UV rays.
Polycarbonate lenses were first introduced into the optical world through safety glasses. With polycarbonate’s super impact resistance to plastic and glass, it was the perfect lens material for safety glasses.
Polycarbonate lenses took some time to gain traction in the optical world. The first polycarbonate lenses ran into three major problems that kept it from gaining traction, these were as follow:
- Quality – The first polycarbonate lenses that were introduced into the optical world were acceptable as safety glasses but doctors and dispensers were not thrilled with the quality. The first polycarbonate lenses had minute black carbon particles embedded inside the lenses. Plants that were using polycarbonate lenses for safety glasses didn’t care about the tiny black particles. Doctors and dispensers used to the pristine clarity of plastic and glass lenses refused to accept the little black particles in the lenses.
- Edging Problems – Because of the unique softness of the polycarbonate lenses, it could not be edged on the edgers that were used to edge plastic and glass lenses. The investment to upgrade equipment was too costly, and there was not enough demand for the new lenses.
- Surfacing Problems – It took time for manufacturers to develop new surfacing equipment that could surface polycarbonate lenses.
Eventually, these obstacles were overcome and the polycarbonate material got developed to the polycarbonate material we know today, thanks to the CD and entertainment industries.
Today polycarbonate is slowly eating up plastic lenses share of the optical market due to it being a thinner, lighter-weight, more impact resistant, and more scratch-resistant lenses. Let’s look at the pros and cons of polycarbonate lenses.
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Pros and Cons of Polycarbonate Lenses
- Super Impact-resistance
- 20-35% thinner than plastic and glass
- Lightweight – 20% lighter than plastic, substantially lighter than glass
- Built-in 100% UV blocker
- The material is soft and requires a scratch-resistant coating
- Distortion on lens edge for higher prescriptions
- Is more reflective than plastic or glass (Anti-reflective coating is recommended)
Polycarbonate lenses are slowly starting to come standard from many eyeglass manufactures. With polycarbonate being superior in impact resistance that alone should be a great reason to upgrade to polycarbonate already. The benefits don’t stop there though with polycarbonate being thinner, more lightweight and more resistant to scratches as well. Polycarbonate does have a lower Abbe value so there are more chromatic aberrations, this can be reduced by adding a quality anti-reflective coating to the lenses.
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Which One Should You Go With?
Ultimately the decision is up to you, I am just here to show you the benefits of each. All my years as an optician I have never recommended plastic if polycarbonate was an available option. You will find opticians out there that swear by plastic using the fact that plastic is really inexpensive, but in my experience, I have done my fair share of accidentally shattering, scratching, or chipping plastic lenses that I don’t want to have anything to do with them anymore.
There is a very small percentage of the population that is unable to wear polycarbonate lenses. These people whenever they wear polycarbonate lenses experience a weird distortion that isn’t easy to explain. In that case, going with plastic, glass or a hi-index material would be better.
Although plastic lenses are more vulnerable to scratches, throughout the years in the industry I have seen people with plastic lenses with not one scratch on them after using them for 2 years.
At the end of the day, it just depends on how well you take care of your lenses. Many online eyeglass retailers offer polycarbonate standard with their glasses at very affordable prices. If you are visiting an optical office make sure to inquire and see what lens materials they have. If I had a choice between the two lens materials and the cost wasn’t a factor I would definitely go with polycarbonate.
What kind of lenses do you have in your glasses? Let me know below!
If you are a prescription contact lens wearer be sure to check out where the best places to buy contact lenses online are, coupons & promo codes are available
As always thank you for reading and if you have any comments, questions or concerns feel free to reach out to me below in the comments and I will get back to you.
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22 thoughts on “Plastic vs Polycarbonate Lenses – Is One Really Better?”
Very informative. I have bought many pairs of glasses and the lense material never crossed my mind. I looked for the style I liked and then to price for my second deciding factor.
Now I will be adding lense material to the list.
Hi Tim! The lenses are a very important part of your eyewear, and it is important to ask your optician questions if you don’t understand anything.
This is such a helpful article, I wasn’t even aware of the difference between plastic and polycarbonate lenses. I notice you say that plastic is cheaper. What kind of price range would I expect for polycarbonate lenses?
Hi Amy! Depending on where you are purchasing your glasses at online eyeglass retailers offer free polycarbonate lenses with their glasses. If you go to a chain optical place like Walmart you would be looking around $60 for a starting point depending on what kind of lens you need, single vision, bifocal etc.
I never knew the difference in the material til now 🙂
I have plastic lens. I have just started to need glasses for reading. Why do they not recommend the cheap glasses. Does it really hurt your eyes? Love to hear your thoughts.
Hi Diane, great question. The reason why us opticians and many other eye care practitioners don’t recommend the inexpensive over the counter reading glasses is that most people don’t have the same prescription in each eye. Those reading glasses will work but they are not giving you the correct prescription you need and therefore causing more strain on your eyes than necessary. A quality pair of prescription glasses would eliminate that strain.
Thanks for sharing this informative blog. Polycarbonate lenses are thinner and lighter than regular plastic lenses. They also offer 100 percent protection from the sun’s harmful UV light and are up to 10 times more impact-resistant than plastic or glass lenses.
You’re absolutely right! Thanks for stopping by!
Thank you so much for the article!
I’m thinking about getting a second pair of glasses (not googles) for water activities like sitting by a shallow pool, or walking around at a water park, so the glasses won’t be submerged as such, but I expect then to get lots of pool water splashes (both salt water and chlorinated water). Would it still be better to use polycarbonate as opposed to plastic. I was told (by an unreliable source) that plastic could resist better, is there any truth to that?
Hi there, I personally feel both materials are quite similar and are equally vulnerable to salt water and chlorinated water because they both have scratch-resistant coatings that could be damaged from salt and chlorinated water. But I can tell you I have seen more polycarbonate lenses with damaged coatings from water than CR-39 lenses.
I recently purchased non-polycarbonate 1.61 index “Digital Free Form” progressive lenses from zennioptical.com. They shipped me polycarbonate 1.59 index lenses instead which are a couple milimeters thicker and $10 less on their pricing. ($45 vs $55)
I’m debating weather to send them back demanding what I ordered or just wear them to avoid a month of delay and hastle.
If you feel like it is worth the time and hassle then send them back. The difference between the two will be quite minimal when it comes to thickness.
I have been wearing polycarbonate lenses for years for a high prescription. Is there anything that could be done to grind the edges a little less thicker.
Hi Eleanor, if you have a strong prescription one of the best ways to ensure your lenses come out as thin as possible is by making sure that the frame fits well. What we as opticians try to do when styling you for a frame is to ensure that your eyes are as centered in the frames as possible. This will ensure you have the thinnest cut for the edges. Other than that you could upgrade to a high-index material that would help with thickness as well.
I have 4 mo old poly carbonate lenses from Walmart. The top and bottom edges of both lens have many, very fine scratches. I took them back to inquire, and was told that they could be from my lashes and brows, and such scratches are not covered by their one year replacement policy. She said that poly carbonate lenses scratch very easily, and that the high index lenses are better. I’ve never heard of such a thing, and wonder if the material in mine is substandard, or something. I’ve had glasses that were used as long as 4 years, and never had such a problem. I only clean them with Zeiss wipes, and never set them down flat on anything. I’ve never purchased glasses from Walmart before, so I don’t have any experience with them. Is what they’ve told me true?
Hi Mary! Thank you for reaching out. I will send you an email to help you with this.
Just to add that polycarbonate is plastic.
Obviously, I am clearly talking about CR-39 vs polycarbonate.
I have polycarbonate for the first time. I just don’t see as well with them. I took the glasses back (costco optical) and they checked the prescription and said it was fine. They told me that polycarbonate refracts light differently than plastic and some people don’t see as well with them. For me I am going back to plastic.
Thanks for this informative article. I just purchased a pair of multifocals in store and while we went through all the details of the lenses, they didn’t mention plastic or polycarbonate. My receipt lists “Plast 1.49 PANORMA IMPERIUM PLUS”, so I guess that means plastic. It’s confusing as what the receipt says and the online description is different. I thought I was purchasing Essilor Varilux® X Progressive Lenses, and what they described as their second best lens, the ‘Superior – High Index – A thinner, flatter and lighter premium lens’. Could this still be plastic or is this polycarbonate? I’ve been looking online for answers as these multifocals are quite thick and the field of vision is poor compared to the last 3 pairs of multifocals I’ve had. Obviously my prescription is higher each time so I expected them to be thicker, hence buying what I thought was a thinner lens! Any thoughts?
I just bought 1 pair of glasses at Walmart and they hit me with 2 ea. $80.00 charges for the FT poly.
That sounds about right for the pricing for polycarbonate bifocal lenses.