Glasses: for many, they’re the key to seeing the beautiful world around us. But how do you get the glasses you need? And how do you know they’re a good fit for your eyes?

Why an eye exam is important

Eye exam using a slit-lamp
Eye exam using a slit-lamp

It all starts with getting a comprehensive eye exam from your local optometrist. These brief office visits run your vision through a series of tests in order to determine the health of your eyes, the sharpness of your vision, and the precise numbers for the lenses you might need. Most doctors recommend receiving an eye exam once per year, as adults typically see gradual vision changes from year to year outside of temporary complications (such as ocular migraines). However, children and teenagers may experience rapid changes as they grow, meaning an occasional intermediate eye exam to update their glasses can be worthwhile.

During a standard comprehensive eye exam, your doctor (or a certified technician) will ask several questions regarding your overall health, including smoking status, medical history, weight, information from previous eye exams, and more. Because numerous medications can have side-effects that alter your vision, you will also be required to list all of the current medications you’re taking and why.

As part of your exam, an eye doctor will peek inside your eye with a slit lamp or ophthalmoscope to analyze your retina (the back of your eye) for any signs of trouble. Specific testing might be ordered if your optometrist discovers anything concerning. You will also have your intraocular pressure (IOP) measured via either a puff of air, tonometer, or Goldmann machine.

At some point in your comprehensive exam, your vision will be tested through a phoropter device - a piece of equipment which looks like a pair of binoculars. This is the bread and butter of the eye exam and is capable of measuring a glasses prescription best suited for your eyes. Ideally, you want to read the smallest letters that you possibly can, all the way down to 20/20. Barring the effects of specific eye complications and general aging, almost everyone can be corrected to seeing 20/20 (or close to that) in their distance vision.

Your prescription

A typical glasses prescription is graded by three numbers per eye: sphere, cylinder, and axis. Each of these measurements determines the shape and orientation of your glasses lenses in order to refract light into your eyes to see the best you can. Additionally, there are several different types of vision corrections: near vision, far vision, multifocal, and astigmatism correction.

Eye exam using a phoropter
Eye exam using a phoropter

Near and far vision correction will enable you to either see finer details up close (such as while reading a book) or see distant objects more clearly (useful while driving). Multifocal correction attempts to solve both problems in one pair of glasses, with the bottom portion of the lens manufactured with your reading prescription while the top uses your distance prescription. Astigmatism is a common condition in which your eye tends to be slightly football-shaped, requiring it to take a heavier prescription for correction.

If you end up visiting an optical shop after your eye exam, you can use the prescription given by your doctor to have glasses made specifically for your eyes. An optician will likely measure your Pupil Distance (PD) to figure out how far apart your eyes sit on your face. This makes a huge impact on the comfort and function of your glasses, so make sure to ask to have it measured either during or after your eye exam!

Getting the right glasses

When it comes to selecting frames, remember that glasses are a sophisticated technology - your choice of frame materials, coatings, and other parameters will directly affect cost, comfort, visual acuity, and durability. It also pays to know the difference between plastic frames and metal frames, as each material carries different maintenance requirements.

Most people opt for different glasses for different activities. For instance, your reading and computer glasses will likely be used in the comfort of your home and are less prone to facing harsher conditions like your exercising glasses might experience. Sports glasses - as well as glasses made for children - can be created with polycarbonate lenses to make them highly durable and less likely to get scratched. Likewise, transition lenses are useful when the lighting changes as you drive and progressive lenses can work as an all-arounder for multiple activities. It all depends on your lifestyle and interests.

Finding the right glasses

But don’t get so lost in the details that you forget the fashion statement attached to eyewear. A good pair of frames can come in different colors, sizes, shapes, and finishes to best reflect your personality and style. It’s no surprise, then, that there are hundreds of different brands featuring massive selections to choose from! Try not to get overwhelmed and consider your options both in-store and online to find the glasses that best describe you. Learn more about the most iconic eywear brands here.

Wondering where to buy glasses? Most of the time your optometrist will have an optical department that you can visit without an appointment if you ever need help. Some optical chains also function as their own stores and can offer wider selections than your doctor’s office. If convenience is more to your liking, you can also browse for glasses online and utilize virtual try-before-you-buy features to make a more informed buying decision. Just be aware that online shopping paves the way for mistakes amongst newer eyewear shoppers; visiting a brick-and-mortar location might be a good idea for your first foray.

Tip: Is your doctor’s optical selection not catching your eye? Don’t forget to always ask for a copy of your glasses or contact lens prescriptions after your exam to take home with you. That way you can plug in the numbers online or at another retailer for a wider range of options quickly and easily.

What about the cost?

As previously mentioned, many factors about the quality and make of your frames and glasses will determine the expenses. Some bigger brands or frames created with finer materials will cost considerably more than a quick pair of plastic frames. Nevertheless, you don’t want to skimp on the price when quality vision is at stake. Because you will likely wear your glasses for most of the day, cheap glasses can wear down quickly, costing you more time and money in the long run. Committing to a modest budget is usually the best solution to get a pair of spectacles that last. Affordability and functionality can coexist in your eyewear!