Bifocal and progressive lenses have the same goal — to help you clearly see objects that are close up and far away. But, how they’ll get you there is different.
Imagine a roadmap. You have a destination in mind (in this case, that destination is clear vision at any distance) and you can take two routes to get there. If one route is cluttered with construction and traffic, you’re going to take the other route — the one that makes your journey easier and more enjoyable. So, which pair of eyeglasses will make your journey more enjoyable, bifocals or progressives?
There are strong opinions on both sides of the bifocal vs. progressive lenses argument. So, we’re comparing the pros and cons side-by-side to help you choose the lenses that are right for your unique lifestyle. We’ll look at the purpose, design, wearer experience, style, and price of each type of eyewear lens. We’ll declare a winner at the end of each section so you can clearly see the strengths and weaknesses of each lens.
Bifocal vs. Progressive Lenses: Purpose
Both bifocal lenses and progressive lenses are meant to serve the same purpose. These types of eyeglasses combine more than one distance prescription in one lens, creating a multifocal lens. Part of the lens addresses nearsightedness (the inability to clearly see things that are far away) while the other part addresses farsightedness (the inability to clearly see things that are close-up). Bifocals will only address those two distances — near and far — but progressives will address near, far, and middle distance vision.
If you struggle to see both close-up items, like the fine print on a product label, and far-off items, like the menu board when you're in a long line at your favorite cafe, then your eye doctor will likely recommend bifocals or progressive lenses. One of the most common reasons people need bifocals or progressives is age-related presbyopia. This means that you’re gradually losing your close-up vision. It’s a natural part of the aging process, and it happens because the lenses of your eyes become less flexible over time.
However, you may also need bifocal or progressive lenses if you suffer from astigmatism (an irregularly curved cornea or lens) in combination with either myopia (nearsightedness) or hyperopia (farsightedness). Hyperopia is different from presbyopia — it occurs when the shape of the eye is too short or the cornea is flat. Hyperopia is usually diagnosed in childhood.
Hyperopia only affects 5-10% of the U.S. population, while myopia is more common, affecting nearly 25%. So, many people who get diagnosed with presbyopia in their 40s or 50s already had myopia. Myopia and astigmatism are also a common combination. If you have both vision issues simultaneously, then you could benefit from bifocals or progressives.
Winner: Tie. So far so good; both pairs of glasses were designed to address the same problem — difficulty seeing both nearby and far-off objects.
Bifocal vs. Progressive Lenses: Design
The design of these two types of lenses is where they start to differ. Here’s how each lens is constructed.
The bifocal lens is a several-hundred-year-old design. They work by combining two different lenses in a single pair of glasses.
The first-ever pair of bifocals were made by cutting a distance prescription lens and a reading glasses lens in half and gluing them together. As you might imagine, this led to a visible line where the two different prescription lenses met.
While today’s bifocals have come a long way, they still have the same visible line that traditional bifocals had. When you look at a set of bifocal lenses, you’ll see a D-shaped or circular-shaped section in the bottom half of the glasses — this is the separate lens for near vision. The top half is for distance vision.
Because of the two distinct parts of the lens, bifocals only provide two fields of vision — near and far. They don’t address the middle distance. Trifocal lenses can address this problem. They’re made up of three different lenses: one for near vision, one for far vision, and one for middle-distance vision. But, trifocals will have two different visible lines where each of the lenses connect.
Progressive glasses are sometimes called “no-line bifocals,” but this is a misnomer since they function quite differently from bifocals. They’re a much newer technology and are made up of a single lens, as opposed to two lenses fused together. As a result, progressive lenses look just like single vision lenses.
Progressive lenses don’t have a visible line and they don’t have two distinct fields of vision. Instead, the field of vision gradually transitions as you move down the lens. The lens still addresses distance vision at the top and near vision at the bottom, but unlike bifocals, progressives address middle vision — creating a picture that is much more natural looking than the two distinct fields of bifocals.
There are also multiple types of progressive lenses, which increases your chances of finding the pair of glasses that are right for you. Progressives come in:
Standard progressives do everything we described above, but because they gradually transition between fields of vision, they use a larger lens to do so. (Luckily, large lenses are très chic right now!)
Short corridor progressives do everything a progressive does but in a smaller lens. Because it’s hard to fit all those fields of vision in a small lens, short corridor lenses will cost more.
Computer progressives are specifically designed to keep your eyes comfortable in front of a computer screen. Some computer progressive even provide blue-light filtering (a popular choice among Pair Eyewear shoppers).
Premium progressives are lighter weight and offer a wider, smoother field of vision. This is the best option for anyone with a complex prescription.
Winner: Progressives. Made up of a single lens with no visible line in the middle of your glasses, and with a natural-looking picture that addresses near, far, and middle distance vision, these glasses have a much more streamlined design.
Bifocal vs. Progressive Lenses: Wearer Experience
Progressive lenses often provide a smoother wearer experience than bifocals. Because bifocals force your eyes (and mind) to rapidly switch between near and far vision, some wearers experience image jump, which can lead to confusion and sometimes nausea. Even users who don’t experience confusion and nausea can find image jump annoying.
Progressives are also better for people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer. Working on the computer is a middle distance activity, and bifocals don’t offer a middle distance field of vision. However, some eyeglass wearers who do close-up, detailed work prefer bifocals because the reading glasses part of the lens provides good magnification for very close work.
Whether you choose bifocal or progressive lenses, you should expect an adjustment period. The first time you wear them, you’ll need to train your eyes and head to move smoothly over the lenses so you can see comfortably at each distance.
It can take up to a week to adjust to new lenses — this is true whether you’re adjusting to a new pair of progressives, bifocals, or even single vision lenses. And the adjustment period can be uncomfortable at times.
You might have headaches, blurry vision, dizziness, or nausea. Hang in there! After the adjustment period these symptoms should go away. But, if you’re still having issues after a week, talk to your optometrist. You may need a new prescription.
Winner: Progressives. Although both progressives and bifocals come with an adjustment period, progressive lenses will help you avoid image jump and allow you to work more comfortably on a computer.
Bifocal vs. Progressive Lenses: Style
Stylistically, the main difference between these two types of lenses is that bifocals have a visible line where they switch from distance vision to near vision. Progressives are a single lens, which will offer a better view of your face.
At Pair Eyewear, we’re all about using fashion as a form of self expression, which is why we make stylish Top Frames that allow you to change the look of your glasses in seconds. And one of the most powerful forms of self expression is eye contact. Progressives won’t get in the way of your facial expressions when you’re connecting with friends, family, and coworkers.
Winner: Progressives. With no visible line in the middle of the lens, these glasses allow you to make a clear style statement.
Bifocal vs. Progressive Lenses: Price
Bifocals typically cost less than progressives, but you can often use your progressives for longer than bifocals. So, progressives may work out to be the same price or less over time.
Because bifocals only offer two fields of vision, you have less flexibility with your prescription. If you experience even a slight change in your close-up or distance prescription, you’ll need a new pair of glasses.
Because progressive glasses offer a more gradual transition, you may be able to use them through slight changes in your prescription, only needing to buy a new pair when your eye exam shows stronger changes in your vision. This could allow you to buy new glasses less often, saving you money in the long run.
Winner: Tie. Bifocals will cost less upfront, but progressives could save you money in the long run because you may be able to wait longer to update your prescription.
When it comes to multifocal lenses, both bifocals and progressives allow you to wear a single pair of glasses and avoid switching between distance glasses and reading glasses. But, in the battle of bifocal vs. progressive lenses, progressives are the clear winner.
Unlike bifocals, progressives don’t have a visible line on the lens, and they provide a clear view at multiple fields of vision, not just two. Progressives also allow you to avoid image jump, which can range from annoying to uncomfortable, and they’re more comfortable for people who work on the computer regularly.
To find your next pair of progressive glasses, shop Pair Eyewear. All our progressives are made from impact-resistant, polycarbonate lenses with an anti-reflective and scratch-resistant coating. And with just one pair of Base Frames starting at $60, you can express yourself in endless ways. Our stylish Top Frames attach to your Base Frame so you can change your look or turn your glasses into sunglasses without paying for a second pair of prescription lenses. It's the best way to save money on your glasses without sacrificing your personal style.