Are Colored Contacts Safe?

Author: Premier Eye Associates

As Halloween quickly approaches many may be looking to elevate this year’s costume with cosmetic contact lenses—lenses that can change your eye color, pupil shape, or even add patterns to look like a certain character.

While these lenses can be a fun way to alter your appearance and really take your costume to the next level, they can also be dangerous. Here are some things you should know before buying cosmetic contact lenses.


FDA Regulation of Contacts

Contact lenses are regulated through the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means contact lens manufacturers are held to a certain standard to ensure the lenses they produce are safe to wear.

The FDA classifies any contact lens (soft or hard) as posing at least a “moderate” risk to the consumer in terms of potential harm and infection to the eye. This means even the safest of lenses that undergo the strictest testing come with some risk to the wearer. Anything that falls short of the FDA’s approval criterion only increases this risk.

During initial testing, the FDA investigates how the lens is manufactured, the chemical make-up of the lens, the microbiology of the lens, and the toxicology of the lens.

One of the most important aspects of this data is the microbiology component.

Contact lenses must be kept moist to avoid them drying up and becoming unwearable. However, they also need to be kept sterile—rid of bacteria—so that the lens does not cause infection upon insertion into the eye.

To accomplish this, lenses come individually wrapped in a foil packet. These foil packets are filled with a sterile saline and preservatives to prolong shelf life.

The lenses go through rigorous testing to ensure the saline and lens are sterile and remain sterile until the foil packet is opened, and the lens is removed to be inserted into the eye.

Creating a lens and saline solution that is sterile enough to inhibit bacterial growth but is non-harmful to the eye is a rather complicated process—hence why it is so carefully regulated by the FDA.

A lens’s chemical makeup is also a crucial aspect as to how safe it is to wear.

The cornea (the frontmost structure of the eye) gets most of its oxygen from the air as it does not have a blood supply. If you place a contact lens on the eye that does not transmit oxygen flow, it can essentially cut off the cornea’s oxygen supply and starve it of the nutrition it needs, leading to new blood vessel growth, ischemia, and increased risk for infection.

For this reason, the FDA also looks into a lens’s Dk value—or the amount of oxygen transmissibility a lens allows for.

We want a high Dk value. Lenses with a lower Dk value pose additional wear risks and must be taken out each night (i.e. cannot be slept in).

Additionally, the FDA requires contact lenses to have an updated prescription from a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist.

This is because contact lens wear does have “moderate” risk. It is therefore very important that a doctor look at your eyes and chose a lens with properties that will fit your eyes well, as contact lenses come in a variety of sizes and with varying characteristics and measurements.

The doctor will also properly train you in all things contact lens related—lens insertion, lens removal, proper lens care, and signs or symptoms of infection.

Per the FDA, sale of any contact lens without showing proof of prescription (even if the prescription is 0.00 and being worn for cosmetic purposes only) is illegal.


How Do I Get Colored Contacts?

Contact lenses should only be purchased through eye care professionals and approved retailers. They should not be purchased at boutiques, novelty stores, costume shops, beauty supply stores, internet sites that do not require a prescription, or any where else that does not require a prescription.

You can get a contact lens prescription from a doctor and get lenses elsewhere—just make sure you are asked to provide proof of prescription! Your eye doctor will be able to provide you with a list of safe and reputable cosmetic contact lens manufacturers.


Risk of Infection

Ultimately, all of these regulations and testing procedures are performed to reduce the risk of infection.

Eye infections are serious, painful conditions as the eye is not like the rest of the body in terms of healing and repair.

The eye’s structures are very specifically arranged to allow for transparency.

Light enters the eye at the cornea and must travel all the way back to the posterior-most structure called the retina. The retina contains all of the cells responsible for detecting light and sending information on to the brain.

Any object—blood vessel, scar, patch of inflammation, irregular tissue growth, etc.—that impairs the pathway of light to the retina can obstruct vision.

Unfortunately for the eye, the normal healing pathway of the body is to increase inflammatory cells and enlarge blood vessels to provide the site of infection with an appropriate immune response to attack and destroy any unwanted microbes.

These immune cells are opaque, and therefore can obstruct the visual pathway, leading to a decrease in vision. As the infection clears up, many times immune cell remnants remain as “scarring”. Scars cannot be removed. Therefore, any vision loss associated with scarring is permanent.

Contact lenses that are not properly sterilized, do not contain antimicrobial properties, have too low oxygen transmissibility, fit improperly (too big, too small, too tight, too loose, incorrect curvature, etc.), or are improperly inserted or removed all increase risk for infection exponentially.

Infection is not the only thing doctors worry about with non-FDA approved contact lenses. Doctors also commonly seen corneal abrasions (scratches on the cornea) from improper insertion, removal, or ill-fitting lenses, allergic reactions to lenses, decreased vision, and even pink eye infections!

Is purchasing a $20 set of decorative contact lenses this Halloween worth potential permanent vision loss? The answer should be no! Please talk to your local optometrist before purchasing any cosmetic lenses this year. Your eye health is our topmost priority.


Dr. Anthony Spina and the staff of Premier Eye Associates specialize in glasses, soft contact lenses, hard contact lenses, and medical eye exams. Call our eye doctor in Auburn, AL today at (334) 539-5391 or schedule an appointment online  if you are interested in colored contacts.  Our optometrist provides only the highest quality eye care services amongst eye doctors in the Auburn Alabama area.

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