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Varifocal Lenses Explained

Learn all about varifocal lenses

If you’ve been considering trying varifocals (or are just curious), this article is for you. Here we explain everything about varifocal lenses, including how they were first developed, the different types, and the pros of cons to using this lens.

Definition & Origins

Varifocal lenses provide continuous vision for all distances in a single lens, and correct presbyopia. They are often described as having 3 ‘portions’ of vision: long distance at the top of the lens, reading at the bottom, and intermediate in the middle.

A pair of varifocal glasses with the sections for different distances highlighted
A pair of varifocal glasses with the sections for different distances highlighted

Varifocal lenses are technically called ‘Progressive Addition Lenses’ (PAL), or Progressive Power Lenses (PPL), but are commonly known as varifocals. The first patent for the varifocal lens was in the early 20th century, though they weren’t launched commercially until 1955, when Irving Ripps at Younger Optical developed the ’Younger Seamless Bifocal’. As the name suggests it was based on a bifocal lens, and the design was quite basic.

All varifocal lenses have an element of peripheral distortion, which is due to the way the lenses are designed, and is completely normal. Better lenses manage this distortion better and move it further towards the edges of the lens, thus improving the field of vision and ease of use for wearers.

Basic lens designs can be described as ‘off the peg’ and one size fits all. This is because these lenses assume a prescription is only spherical. This can make it difficult to adapt to for higher prescriptions, especially for those with a high astigmatism.

Modern ‘Freeform’ lens designs offer a much better experience. Freeform lenses use computer-aided design and a digital manufacturing process to provide a more customised result. Think of them like an off-the-rack suit that’s then been altered to fit by a tailor.

The increase in lens design options can make choosing the best varifocal lens a difficult decision. Most opticians will offer a broad range of varifocal lenses and we currently offer 3 types of varifocal:

Varifocal Advanced

View of a motorway from the driver's seat through a varifocal advanced lens

Our Advanced varifocal lenses are made with a modern Freeform lens design and provide a good field of vision at all distances when compared to basic lens designs.

Elite HD

View of a motorway from the driver's seat through a varifocal elite HD lens

Elite HD features multi-aspheric, Freeform lens technology including a special aberration filter to greatly reduce distortion at the edge of the lens.

Binocular balancing calculations are made to create the smoothest power transitions throughout the lens. Elite HD offers a 30% improvement in field of vision compared to a conventional lens.

Supreme HD

View of a motorway from the driver's seat through a varifocal supreme HD lens

In Supreme HD varifocal lenses, Digital Ray Path technology takes account of the specific frame, prescription, and optical centres, producing a lens that greatly reduces unwanted aberrations, improving field of vision at all distances.

Excellent for desk, tablet, and reading distances where they offer a 20% wider field of view than Elite HD, Supreme HD are our recommended lenses for all wearers.

Varifocal lenses: Pros & Cons

The main advantage of varifocal lenses is that they allow the wearer to see at all distances with the same pair of glasses. For the majority of people they are the most convenient way to resolve the problem of needing different corrections for long distance, intermediate, and near. Once the glasses are on there’s no need to take them off, carry more than one pair of glasses around or swap between pairs.

However, for some people the blurring of images in the periphery of the lens, the limited field of vision for middle and near distances, and the head movements that they have to make to see through the correct parts of the lens for different distances are difficult. Adapting to varifocal lenses can take a little while for many new wearers, but most adapt to them after several days.

Older woman with glasses looking at a tablet

If you are getting varifocal lenses for the first time

If this is your first time with varifocal lenses, it will take a bit of time to get used to them. This generally takes anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. It may even take longer for some people.

Varifocal lenses provide continuous vision for all distances in a single lens. They are often described as having three ‘portions’ of vision: long distance at the top of the lens, reading at the bottom, and intermediate in the middle.

When you put varifocal glasses on for the first time, there are several things to be aware of:

  • All varifocal lenses have a narrower field of view for the intermediate and close portions when compared to the long distance portion, so there will be some blurring at the lens periphery. All levels of varifocal will have this to some extent, although the effects are less pronounced in higher-quality versions.
  • When you want to see objects at different distances, you will need to adjust your head and eye position so they are looking through the correct portion of the lens.
  • For tasks such as driving and watching television you will need to use the distance portion, which is located higher up in the lens. If you are looking straight ahead with a natural head position, you will be looking through this zone. When looking to the left and right you may need to turn your head and point your nose at what you want to see.
  • When using a computer or viewing the car dashboard you will need to use the intermediate portion, which is located slightly lower down in the lens than the distance part. You can find this by lifting the chin slightly while keeping your eyes fixed on what you are viewing.
  • If you are reading a book or looking at your watch you will need to use the reading portion, which is located lower down in the lens towards the bottom rim. To find this zone you will need to look downwards and lift your chin slightly.
  • Because varifocal lenses have a magnified reading portion at the bottom, you should be careful of stairs, kerbs, and other objects at your feet as these will appear blurry. We suggest tucking your chin into your chest so that you’re looking towards the less magnified top of the lens.
  • Driving in varifocals is perfectly safe. However, you first need to make sure you are comfortable wearing them indoors and have perfected the head movements needed to position the centre of the lens in the direction you want to look at.
  • Due to the adaptation period needed, we offer a ‘tolerance guarantee’ of 90 days to give you the best possible chance of getting used to the lenses. You can return them for free within 90 days if you are not satisfied with them.
A smiling man with glasses driving a car

If you have worn varifocal lenses before

If you have worn varifocal lenses before, you should know what to expect and how to use the lenses. However, there are many suppliers of varifocal lenses and the exact design we use may differ a little from what you currently wear. As a result, there may be a settling-in period as you adjust to your new lenses. If your prescription has changed, this may also take some time to adjust to.

Be careful of stairs, kerbs, and other objects at your feet while you adjust to your new varifocals, and make sure you are comfortable wearing them indoors before you drive in them.

If you have any questions, our dispensing opticians will be happy to answer them.

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