I have thought of this question due to personal experience. I am short-sighted, and over the last three years my short-sightedness has worsened. Taking a lifeguard certificate again now that I did already three years ago, I noticed while diving that I have almost no vision anymore when trying to find and collect some training rings, that I had no problem to visually identify three years ago. In all cases, I am not wearing any goggles while diving.

So, I came to think whether short-sightedness has an effect that adds to the effect of the eyes being covered by water and the cornea having almost no refraction. This process is explained in other questions here, but I claim that my set of closely related questions is different, not only due to the inclusion of short-sightedness.

I then tried out my normal glasses under water and noticed no effect at all, not positive, not negative. I am now confused as to why the glasses have no effect, but the short-sightedness that they should correct does have a worsening effect. In this, I am assuming, without being able to justify it, that the glasses should have the same effect under water as above water, because, as the water touches them from both sides, the light should have a different path inside the length (less bending at entry and exit), but that the light rays exiting the glasses under water should be parallel to the light rays that would exit it in air. But what is instead the mechanism at work here that renders air-glasses useless under water?

Second, I notice that, when wearing swimming goggles, my short-sightedness is alleviated under water. This means that I can see better under water with swimming goggles and without any contact lenses or corrective glasses than I can above water without glasses or lenses. A quick search on the web found other questions of short-sighted people that noticed this effect, but I could not identify how this is working out for normal-sighted or far-sighted people. How does this work?

Then I pondered, as contact lenses are swimming on the eye, but, when underwater, have also contact with water instead of the air they are designed for, do contact lenses have an effect under water (ignoring the risk of them swimming away quickly)?

Finally, what would be the dimensions of a pair of glasses that actually work under water (be it for normal-sighted or short-sighted persons), when we, in turn, ignore their performance in air? How thick and large would they be?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why doesn't the linked question/and answers also answer your question? Your glasses don't help because they also have close to the refractive index of water. The accepted answer there also deals with goggles and contact lenses. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Mar 12, 2018 at 23:36
  • $\begingroup$ Does have a worsening effect , hmmm. Have you considered a change in the distance between the eye lens and the back of the eye caused by water pressure. A shortening of that distance would be consistent with worsening vision if short sighted. One way to tell is 3 foot depth vs 6 foot depth. $\endgroup$
    – John Heath
    Mar 13, 2018 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ True, I did not read the accepted answer closely enough. That reduces my question to the sub-questions 2 and 4. $\endgroup$
    – Marie. P.
    Mar 13, 2018 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ @John Heath I will try that out. When I went swimming yesterday (I can go only on Mondays), I did not explicitly test this, but when diving at 2-3m deep, I did have more problems spotting the rings than I thought I would have had based on being on the surface before, squinching my eyes together and looking at things that were just in front of me as close as the rings were later on. I will try to test it more carefully and replicably next week, e.g. trying to read a diver's watch dial an arm's length away at different depths! $\endgroup$
    – Marie. P.
    Mar 13, 2018 at 13:15

3 Answers 3


Glasses which correct for nearsightedness produce a virtual image nearer to the eye than the actual object:

diverging lens animation

I'm also nearsighted: with my glasses off, I can only focus about a foot in front of my face. My glasses take objects that are infinitely far away and diverge the light coming from them, so that there are virtual images less than a foot from my face; that's how I'm able to focus on objects through my glasses.

I have also observed that, underwater, I can see all the way across the pool with my swim goggles on. Most swim goggles are bubble-shaped, so we can model the swim goggles as a plano-convex lens:

lens shapes (source)

The curved surface of the "goggle-lens" is the water-air interface; the flat "surface" is the air-air interface, where there isn't any refraction. Now if you build a plano-convex lens out of glass and use it in the air, it's a converging lens. That's because the speed of light is slower in glass than in air, so the light bends towards the fat part of the lens. However your goggles are acting as a lens made of air and submerged in water. Since the relative indices of refraction are reversed, light moving from the water into the "air lens" is bent away from the fat part of the lens. The goggles, when underwater, therefore act like diverging lenses, which is the way to correct for nearsightedness.

I wonder if people who don't need glasses, or people who are farsighted, find things blurrier underwater with goggles on? Perhaps such a swimmer will comment.

  • $\begingroup$ what do you mean with "air-air interface"? Do you mean: "The curved surface of the "goggle-lens" is the water-plastic interface; the flat "surface" is the plastic-air interface, where there isn't any refraction"? - The goggles are a simple layer of see-through plastic. $\endgroup$
    – Marie. P.
    Mar 13, 2018 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ If the plastic of the goggles has the same thickness throughout, the goggles would fit in the second diagram as a "zero-meniscus" lens, neither converging nor diverging. That's why, looking through the goggles in the air, there is not very much change to the image. The refractive interface is between the water outside the goggles and the air inside the goggles. Proving that the thin plastic layer doesn't matter much is straightforward, but more than I can write today. $\endgroup$
    – rob
    Mar 13, 2018 at 16:35

But what is instead the mechanism at work here that renders air-glasses useless under water?

The index of refraction is different between air (~1) and glasses (~1.3). This difference is what makes "air" glasses function. The problem is that water has a refractive index of ~1.3 as well. Now there's hardly any difference in index of refraction between the glasses and water so light hardly bends.

How does this work? [on vision being better with goggles below water vs nothing above water]

I believe I've seen the same results you talk about when wearing goggles. The only thing I can think of is that the goggles themselves are putting pressure on the eyes and slightly changing the shape of them temporarily reducing myopia. If this is actually happening, a normal visioned person can just compensate with the lens within their eye. A far-sighted person would have more difficulty seeing though because they're already past the range that their internal lens can compensate.

do contact lenses have an effect under water (ignoring the risk of them swimming away quickly)?

Contact lenses will have virtually no effect under water because the materials they use for them also have a refractive index near 1.3. Light won't bend much when passing from water to contact to eye.

Finally, what would be the dimensions of a pair of glasses that actually work under water

It's basically impossible to have glasses correct any sort of vision underwater because the refractive index is very similar to water. They simply won't bend the light much. Due to the same issue, contact lenses wouldn't work either because they would basically act like another layer of water. The only way to see clearly would be to have a water/air-gap/eye interface which is what goggles provide.The reason this works is because air's refractive index is very different than water.

Lastly, it's a terrible image, but it shows that underwater, our eyes hardly bend light which results in us effectively becoming extremely far-sighted (no matter how near-sighted we are above water). enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking about buying prescription goggles but wanted to know if they would be set for air or water (since I also see better underwater with goggles without glasses). It sounds like you're saying that prescription goggles wouldn't work underwater? So they must be "tuned" for air. $\endgroup$
    – ki9
    Oct 12, 2020 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Keith Prescription goggles would actually work I believe since they are adding in the air gap. In fact, if my thinking is correct, they will work in both air and water. You can think of light as incoming straight at the outside edge of the goggles regardless of whether you're in water or air. Then on the goggle to air interface (towards you eyes) would be the prescription that bends the light. Basically, if you waterproofed your glasses, it would work just fine in water or air because the air gap is still available to do the light bending. $\endgroup$
    – horta
    Oct 12, 2020 at 21:52

From an optometrist, via email:

This is a great question. I have wondered about something similar to this for years - what glasses prescription would one need in order to see clearly underwater without glasses. I just had a patient who scuba dives ask me about wearing glasses underwater. The optical principals others have posted here are correct. I reached out to an optics professor at Nova Southeastern University school of Optometry in Fort Lauderdale with this question: I have a theoretical optics question for you: Is there a certain glasses Rx that would see clearly under water? I would assume highly myopic patients would have better acuity under water.

Here was her answer: The refractive power of the cornea is due to both its curvature and the difference in index of refraction between the outside air and inside aqueous fluid inside the eye. If an eye is under water, there will no longer be a difference in the refractive index on either side of the cornea (water and aqueous), so the cornea wouldn’t have any refractive power. The normal refractive power of the cornea is around +43 diopters, so if we eliminate that, a patient with zero glasses prescription would become a +43 diopters farsighted! Or, a -43 diopter nearsighted patient would see clearly under water. I’ve seen some pretty high myopic patients, but not quite that high :)

I just spent a minute brushing up on how refractive error is usually corrected for scuba/snorkeling/swimming. The corrective lens is made with a flat front surface to fit inside of the mask. All of the correction comes from the back surface of the corrective lens which is inside the mask in the air. This way, the mask will provide the same correction both outside the water and inside the water.

So the bottom line is that if the refractive index is similar (water, cornea and aqueous liquid inside the eye...the eye has no focusing power). What happens with glasses above water is the light entering the lens slows down because the refractive index of the lens is higher than air. The curvature or diopter power of the lens alters the way the light focuses. Theoretically if you had a high index lens material that was curved enough - one could see clearly under water. FYI refractive index of air is about 1.0, water is 1.33, cornea is about 1.4, standard glasses lens material is 1.5 and high index lenses (often used for high glasses Rxs is around 1.74). One last point is the two main factors that determine ones refractive error is curvature of the cornea and length of the eye. So if someone had a very long eye they would see better under water. A cool experiment would be to take an eye chart under water with a few patients of varying axial lengths. That should show this principal - corneal curvature shouldn't make much of a difference.


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