Why Do Polarized Sunglasses Make Rainbows Appear? Shocking Optical Science [2023]

Why do polarized sunglasses make rainbows? It’s a fascinating optical effect stemming from the unique way polarized lenses filter light waves. In this article, we’ll explore the science behind why polarized sunglasses create rainbows and the physics involved. Understanding how polarized eyewear works will give you a deeper appreciation of this popular accessory.

Why do polarized sunglasses Make Rainbows effects?

The answer has to do with the unique way polarized lenses filter light waves. Keep reading to learn more about how polarized lenses work and the interesting science behind polarized glasses creating rainbows.

How Polarized Lenses Work

Polarized sunglass lenses are designed to block horizontally oriented light waves while allowing vertically oriented light waves to pass through. This selective filtering helps reduce glare from horizontal surfaces like water, snow, or glass.

Light waves have an electromagnetic component that oscillates in multiple directions perpendicular to the direction of travel. When these light waves reflect off surfaces, the waves can become polarized to orient more in one direction. This is what causes problematic glare.

Polarized lenses have a special chemical applied or embedded in the material that acts as a filter to block light waves oscillating on the horizontal axis while allowing vertical light waves to pass through. This effectively cuts out the horizontally oriented glare.


Why Polarized Lenses Create Rainbow Patterns

When polarized sunglass lenses encounter other polarized surfaces or materials, interesting interference patterns can occur based on the interaction of the polarized light waves. These patterns appear as rainbow-like bands of color.

One example is looking at the blue sky through polarized sunglasses. The atmosphere naturally scatters sunlight and polarizes blue light waves. The polarized lenses interact with these polarized blue light waves to produce rainbow banding effects across the sky.

This also occurs when viewing reflective surfaces like windows or water. The reflected light waves become polarized horizontally. The polarized lenses block a portion of these waves, resulting in rainbow banding visible on the reflective surface.

How Are Rainbow Patterns Formed?

The rainbow patterns created by polarized sunglasses originate from an optical phenomenon called birefringence.

Birefringence refers to when a material splits light waves into two components that are oriented perpendicular to each other. This creates a difference in the way the two light wave components travel through that material.

When the perpendicular light waves exit the birefringent material, one wave can be slightly ahead or behind the other. This delay between the two light components creates interference that we see as colorful bands – like a rainbow.

With polarized sunglasses, the lenses act as the birefringent filter causing interference that splits incoming polarized light into perpendicular wave components. The resulting rainbow patterning is dependent on the angle of the polarized light waves interacting with the polarized lens.

Examples Where Polarized Rainbows Occur

Some common examples where you’ll notice polarized sunglasses creating rainbow patterns include

  • Looking at blue skies – the atmosphere scatters sunlight into polarized waves
  • Looking at bodies of water – the reflected light is horizontally polarized
  • Looking through car windows – laminated glass polarizes light
  • Looking at anti-glare coatings – found on electronics and glass
  • Looking through 3D movie glasses – these are polarized
  • Looking at LCD displays – the screens polarize light

In essence, rainbow effects occur whenever polarized sunglass lenses encounter other reflective surfaces or materials that polarize light waves. The interaction produces visible interference patterns.

The Science Behind Polarized Rainbows


The rainbow banding patterns caused by polarized lenses stem from the wave-particle duality of light.

Light can act as both particles and waves. The particles are photons that carry energy related to light color. The wave aspect creates electro-magnetic oscillations and polarization.

With polarized lenses, the photon particles pass through unchanged. But the horizontal portion of the oscillating light waves gets blocked.

When encountering another polarizing material, the vertically oriented waves then split into perpendicular components due to birefringence. One component travels slower, creating a phase difference between the two newly created light wave components.

This phase difference results in interference – light and dark bands. We see this interference pattern as colorful rainbow bands due to wavelength differences in visible light correlating with color.

Benefits of Polarized Lenses

Despite the interesting rainbow patterns, polarized sunglass lenses have unique benefits

  • Reduce glare and eye fatigue
  • Improve visibility and color contrast
  • Enhance depth perception
  • See more clearly into water and through windows
  • Better vision when driving, boating, fishing, etc.

The ability to filter selectively polarized light is what allows polarized sunglasses to cut through problematic glare and haze.


Why do I sometimes not see rainbows with polarized glasses?

The rainbow effect only occurs when polarized lenses encounter a reflective or birefringent surface that polarizes light in a perpendicular orientation. Without this precise interaction, the interference pattern won’t occur.


How are rainbows created without polarized glasses?

Naturally occurring rainbows stemming from light refracting through water droplets work differently than polarized rainbows. Natural rainbows depend on the color separation in dispersed white light. Polarized rainbows involve interfering polarized light waves.

Do darker sunglass lenses show more rainbows?

No, the darkness or color of tint does not impact the visibility of polarized rainbow patterns. Only the polarization matters. Dark lenses simply reduce overall brightness.

Can wearing two pairs of polarized sunglasses increase rainbows?

Stacking two pairs of polarized sunglasses typically blocks more glare but won’t necessarily increase rainbow effects. The lenses would need to be aligned perpendicular to each other, which is difficult to achieve consistently.

Why are rainbows more visible on some surfaces versus others?

The rainbow interference depends on the angle and orientation of the polarized light encountering the polarized lenses. Some surfaces and materials polarize light more effectively at certain angles when reflecting, inducing more visible banding effects.


Why do polarized sunglasses make rainbows? It’s due to the specialized filtration that interacts with reflective surfaces to produce interference patterns. So next time you wear your polarized shades, admire the optical principles that create vivid spectral color bands.

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Walter Hendricks

Walter Hendricks is a well-known authority in the eyewear industry, specializing in a diverse range of products such as gaming glasses, swimming goggles, sunglasses, eyeglasses, computer glasses, and fashionable daily-wear eyewear.

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