How Sunglasses Work

By: Jeff Tyson

Mirroring and Scratch-resistant Coatings

These Oakleys are highly reflective sunglasses.

Reflective sunglasses often have a mirrored look. The lenses in these sunglasses have a reflective coating applied in a very thin, sparse layer -- so thin that it's called a half-silvered surface.

The name "half-silvered" comes from the fact that the reflective molecules coat the glass so sparsely that only about half the molecules needed to make the glass an opaque mirror are applied. At the molecular level, there are reflective molecules speckled all over the glass in an even film but only half of the glass is covered. The half-silvered surface will reflect about half the light that strikes its surface, while letting the other half go straight through.


Often, the mirror coating is applied as a gradient that gradually changes shades from top to bottom. This provides additional protection from light coming from above while allowing more light to come in from below or straight ahead. What that means is that if you are driving, the sun's rays are blocked but you can see the dashboard. Sometimes the coating is bi-gradient, shading from mirrored at top and bottom to clear in the middle.

The key problem with reflective sunglasses is that the coating is easily scratched. Apparently, sunglass manufacturers have not been able to successfully apply a scratch-resistant layer on top of the reflective coating. Therefore, the scratch-resistant coating is applied first to protect the lenses and the reflective coating is applied over it.

Scratch-resistant Coating

While glass is naturally scratch resistant, most plastics are not. To compensate, manufacturers have developed a variety of ways to apply optically clear hard films to the lens. Films are made of materials such as diamond-like carbon (DLC) and polycrystalline diamond. Through a process of ionization, a thin but extremely durable film is created on the surface of the lens. See Patent 5,268,217 for details.

We'll take a look at anti-reflective coatings on the next page.