October 17, 2015
Area(s) of Interest: Public Health
Every Halloween, costume contact lenses fly off the shelves as people look to accentuate their outfits with those appealing visual accessories. These non-prescription lenses, however, can cause potentially blinding infections.
To help prevent eye damage and vision loss, the California Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons (CAEPS) and the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) are warning costume shoppers about over-the-counter decorative lenses after a recent study found that several varieties tested positive for chlorine and other harmful chemicals.
“While Halloween costumes complete with over-the-counter contact lenses can be fun, many people do not consider the possible damage these seemingly harmless accessories could be doing to their eyes,” said Leah Levi, M.D., CAEPS President. “We take Californians’ vision very seriously, so we believe the safest way to avoid any potential loss of vision or eye damage is to avoid costume contacts altogether.”
Research published in September found the potentially harmful substances in three types of cosmetic contact lenses produced in Ireland, Taiwan, and South Korea. Iron was found in four pairs of lenses. One pair seeped chlorine after a routine rinse, prompting concern from researchers about toxicity to the eye. The chemicals likely come from colorants used to tint and create playful patterns on the lenses. The study also noted that colorants printed or pressed onto some decorative lenses create an uneven texture. Those rough surfaces could scratch the eyes, potentially allowing in bacteria that can cause infection and even blindness.
Four of the five lenses in the study are not available legally in the United States because they are not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Despite that sales restriction, many decorative lenses of unknown origin can be bought online. Around Halloween, they often crop up for sale at beauty parlors, flea markets, or even gas stations. The problem is that contact lenses not approved by the FDA may be made with materials that can harm the eyes by causing corneal ulcers or other corneal irritations or infections (keratitis). These conditions can result in scarring that impairs vision or causes blindness. For this reason, the both Academies advise against wearing decorative lenses without a prescription.
“You can’t be sure what you’re getting when you buy over-the-counter contact lenses, which can be very dangerous to your eyes,” said ophthalmologist Thomas Steinemann, M.D., spokesperson for the AAO. “If you want decorative contact lenses, get a prescription or steer clear of them. It’s not worth the risk to your vision.”
Costume Contact Lens Safety Guidelines
To safely wear decorative contact lenses this Halloween or any time of year, the California Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons and the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommend following these guidelines:
- Only buy decorative contact lenses from retailers who require a prescription and sell FDA-approved products.
- If you don’t already have a contact lens prescription, obtain a valid prescription and eye exam from an ophthalmologist – a medical doctor who treats eye conditions and diseases – or an optometrist.
- Even for those who don’t require lenses that correct their vision need to get examined and fitted for the right size plano (zero power) cosmetic contacts by an eye health professional. Ill-fitting lenses can scratch the surface of the eye, creating an opening for infection.
- Redness, swelling, excessive discharge, pain or discomfort can signal eye infection. If you have these symptoms, immediately see your prescriber. Eye infections can cause blindness if left untreated.
For more information on costume contact lenses, visit the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s public information website, www.geteyesmart.org.