Novelty Contact Lenses Offer Great Looks, Great Risks

10/22/02    Portland, Ore.

Warning follows FDA alert about safety concerns

Novelty contact lenses, a new teen sensation, allow wearers to highlight their eyes with American flags, eight balls, NFL logos, cat's eyes and more. However, clinicians and physicians at the Casey Eye Institute at Oregon Health & Science University have joined the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in warning that improper use puts wearers at great risk.

"People often buy these contacts off the Internet, or at flea markets, makeup counters, or hair and nail salons," said Mark Andre, F.A.A.O., director of Contact Lens Services at Casey Eye Institute. "They're a lot of fun, but usually buyers just don't know how to properly wear or care for them."

Today's warning by Casey physicians follows a similar announcement by the FDA. In fact, the FDA is issuing an import alert instructing FDA and Customs officials to detain automatically all decorative contact lenses presented at United States ports of entry. The FDA will seize decorative contact lenses currently on the market in violation of federal law. The FDA is also communicating with the public and with the eye care professional community concerning the dangers of using decorative contact lenses.

"Consumers should understand that decorative contact lenses, like contact lenses intended for correcting vision, present serious risks to eye health if they are distributed without a valid prescription and proper fitting by a qualified eye care professional," said FDA Deputy Commissioner Dr. Lester M. Crawford. "FDA will aggressively use the full range of its statutory authorities to prevent the distribution of these potentially dangerous products directly to consumers."

"Anytime something is advertised as one size fits all, it's not going to fit everyone," Andre said. "If lenses don't fit, they can irritate the cornea, causing damage and possible infection. Plus, we tell patients to wear new lenses for no more than a couple hours the first day. With cosmetic lenses, people often buy them, wear them to a party, and take them off eight or more hours later. This alone can cause cornea breakdown and irritation. A corneal infection can place patients literally within a couple of days of losing their eyes." Unaware consumers have indeed contracted serious eye infections, coming dangerously close to losing eyesight.

Simply by virtue of their novelty, other risks occur. While normal lenses are disinfected in solution and changed regularly, novelty contact lenses are often left in the same solution for weeks or months at a time. Beyond 30 days, lens solution can be overrun with bacteria and other microorganisms, offering a perfect portal for infection once the lens is placed on the eye. Consumers often share the lenses with friends as well, providing another invitation to infection.

"Novelty lenses are fine, but they should be prescribed, fit and maintained like any other lenses," said Damien Macaluso, M.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology, Division of Cornea and Refractive Surgery in the OHSU School of Medicine. "The complications that can result from cosmetic or novelty contacts are rare, but they can be very serious. If a consumer has pain, redness, discharge or decreased vision, they should immediately remove the lenses and seek the care of an eye health care provider."