The Real Cost of Counterfeit Sunglasses

Two years of riding around Saigon in knock-off sunglasses was all it took for ICT teacher Daniel Gamwell to find out the hard way. When a worsening eye irritation forced him to visit the opticians, he was immediately diagnosed with pterygium. By Simon Stanley. Photo by Vinh Dao.

“It felt like there was grit in my eye,” he tells me. “I’d tried [over the counter] drops but it wouldn’t clear. It was really uncomfortable.”

Also known as ‘surfer’s eye’, pterygium is a build up of creamy, bloodshot, non-cancerous tissue which slowly stretches over the white of the eye towards the pupil. Being widely attributed to prolonged, cumulative UV exposure, Gamwell’s collection of cheap, imitation designer sunglasses were the main culprits. Low prices mean low quality, which often means low to non-existent UV filtration.

“Pterygium is very common in Vietnam,” says Dr Nam Tran Pham, Medical Director at District 7’s American Eye Center. “Anyone who lives around the equator and the tropics [is at increased risk], especially those who spend a lot of time outside or on the beach.”

Fortunately, most cases will clear up without treatment, or with the help of prescribed eyedrops, but if it reaches the iris (and ultimately the pupil), vision can become impaired and surgical removal may be required. Gamwell was able to avoid such drastic measures, but it was the warning he needed. “Wear proper sunglasses!” he says.

Invisible Damage
Dr Pham explains that like skin, our eyes are extremely sensitive to excessive sunlight. Unlike skin, however, they have no early warning system like obviously sunburned skin.

“Unless you have an excessive burst of exposure,” she says, “like those who work in abnormally bright conditions, welders for example, you won’t often have [any short-term] symptoms. It’s usually a cumulative effect over many years.”

In addition to pterygium, UV exposure has been linked to cataracts, macular degeneration – the painless but gradual loss of vision – and cancers, both within the eye itself and on the eyelid or surrounding tissue. For those with pale skin and/or blue eyes (a sign of reduced melanin, the body’s natural UV protection), the risks are even greater.

While a fake pair of wallet-friendly designer shades might reduce the visible brightness of the sun, Dr Pham believes that many do not offer adequate protection against the invisible wavelengths which actually do the damage.

“Consumers often don’t understand that it’s not the dark colour that protects the eyes from UV rays,” she explains, stressing that darker tints are in no way an indication of increased safety. “UV protection is actually a chemical coating on top that blocks the UV light. It’s a clear coating.”

The UV Test
With the help of the team at the American Eye Center and their state-of-the-art facility, we put a range of sunglasses through their paces, testing the UV blocking capabilities of everything from the two dollar ‘Bui Vien specials’, to some genuine, high-end designer specs.

Purchased on a District 1 pavement for just VND 30,000, our neon green imitation Ray Ban Wayfarers are an immediate fail, stopping just 30 percent of the UV light fired from the clinic’s purpose-built machine. It’s a long way from the widely recommended safe minimum of 95 percent. They feel cheap, they feel poorly made, and on close inspection we notice one lens has a tiny hole in it. “Some people just want the look of these glasses,” says Dr Pham, “but as for the actual protection, they are not good.” Into the bin they go.

Moving on we have a slightly pricier pair of fake Wayfarers at VND 50,000. The build quality is visibly better but the UV protection hits just 45 percent. Still nowhere near adequate.

Next are a pair of counterfeit Ray Ban Clubmasters which came with an initial price-tag of VND 150,000. We haggled him down to VND 75,000 but the higher price does seem to have caused a jump in the UV rating – 80 percent. We’re getting closer.

Our fourth pair, originally priced at VND 200,000, will win us no prizes for fashion – they look like a cross between safety-goggles and a prop from a sci-fi movie. They bear no designer logo (or brand-name of any kind) but the ‘100 percent UV’ label caught our eye. They come back at 90 percent. Not bad, but not great.

Unsurprisingly, the genuine designer brands in our lineup block 100 percent of the UV light, but, as our next batch confirms, you don’t have to drop $150 or more to get full protection. There are effective options available at a much more reasonable price point. Sitting in the middle of our price spectrum, costing between $10 and $25, are our ‘high-street’ options, purchased from the likes of Aldo, Marks & Spencer, Accessorize and Gap. All come back with a 100 percent UV rating.

Just as we might think twice before covering our skin in counterfeit sunscreen, we should apply the same logic when protecting our eyes. “Good UV protection is a preventative measure,” says Dr Pham. “And there are reasonable options. Sunglasses don’t have to be really expensive.”

Published October 2015 – AsiaLIFE Magazine

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