EVER SINCE its invention in 1888 by German ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick, contact lenses went through countless modifications, with technological innovations leading to improvements in function as well as in numbers of options available. Nowadays, contact lenses are used extensively—not only to correct vision but also for cosmetic purposes. With South Korea being known for its high beauty standards, cosmetic contact lenses have established themselves as essential beauty enhancers. However, the wide availability of these lenses in the market conceals the dangerous effects they can have on eyes if misused.
The science behind contact lenses
“It is said that over 95% of South Korean males have myopia*,” stated Professor Kim Tae-im from the Severance Eye & ENT Hospital in an interview with The Yonsei Annals. “Because the majority of citizens have poor eyesight, glasses or contact lenses have become a necessity in our daily lives.” Vision problems are a norm in South Korea, with many people turning to glasses and contact lenses for visual aid starting a young age. Contact lenses function in the same way glasses do—the direction of light rays is altered to properly focus the light onto the retina, a layer of light-sensitive tissues located at the back of the eyeball. Problems with vision, such as myopia and hyperopia**, tend to occur due to misfocus of light onto the retina, and contact lenses serve to correct such problems. The main difference between contact lenses and glasses is that contact lenses are worn directly in the eyes, as they are placed on top of the cornea.
Are cosmetic contact lenses worth it?
Cosmetic contact lenses differ from regular ones in their appearances on the eyes when worn. Unlike regular contact lenses that are transparent, the vibrant colors of cosmetic contact lenses give the eyes enlarged and colorful looks, allowing the wearer to change their appearance. These contact lenses have become popular fashion accessories among the younger generation; however, wearing cosmetic contact lenses can cause detrimental problems to the eyes when used without precautions.
Oxygen is a vital component for the eye to function, yet as contact lenses cover and almost suffocate the entire cornea, they physically obstruct the amount of oxygen reaching the eyes. The oxygen from the atmosphere enters the eyes by dissolving in tears, which diffuse throughout the cornea to keep the eye healthy—this vital process is known as oxygenation. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide is disposed as a waste product, and is diffused out of the cornea to be removed from the system. Wearing contact lenses, however, will obstruct these simultaneous and crucial processes. Moreover, according to Professor Kim, wearing contact lenses can heighten the risk of forming blood vessels in the cornea, also known as corneal neovascularization. “Once blood vessels form in the cornea, they can never disappear,” commented Professor Kim. “The formation of blood vessels can be caused by prolonged usage of contact lenses as they deprive the eyes of oxygen. These blood vessels may lead to a decrease in corneal transparency, which is extremely threatening to corneal health as the eye needs to be transparent for proper vision.”
Cosmetic contact lenses in particular can be more dangerous to the eyes as their functions are centered on making eyes appear larger and more beautiful, rather than carrying out oxygen transmission. The manufacturing of cosmetic contact lenses is primarily focused on creating affordable products with appealing designs, so their production methods often differ from those of conventional contact lenses that focus on function and safety. According to Professor Kim, the pigments in most cosmetic contact lenses are coated either on the outer or the inner surface of the lenses that come in direct contact with the cornea to ensure vivid coloration. While having the pigments coated on the outer surface of the lenses causes less discomfort, lenses with pigments coated on the inner surface pose a serious hazard for the eyes as the bumpy coating causes friction as one blinks, leading to an increased risk of corneal scratch.
Such issues aggravate when it comes to cheap cosmetic lenses as they lack the components that reduce stress on the eyes. According to Professor Kim, the higher the silicone or soft content in the contact lenses, the greater the effectiveness of oxygenation. However, because the silicone content is associated with a higher cost of production, cheap contact lenses often lack adequate silicone required to ensure safety and comfort for the eyes.
Are your habits safe?
Putting physical features aside, users can be subjected to other risks when cosmetic lenses are worn without taking necessary precautions. Similar to regular contact lenses, wearing cosmetic contacts over the recommended usage time of ten hours, or worse, sleeping with them, can lead to lethal safety issues. The longer the lenses stay in the eyes, the greater the hindrance to oxygenation, resulting in extreme pain and even potential loss of vision***.
Showering with contact lenses also poses an equal degree of risks. Contact lenses resemble the physical properties of sponges—when exposed to water, they swell as they absorb water particles. If the surface of the eye comes into contact with the chemical, bacterial, or environmental irritants during showers, they can lead to irritations or eye infections. Furthermore, water contains acanthamoeba, an organism that thrives in natural water sources like tap water. If this enters the eye, there is a high likelihood of getting acanthamoeba keratitis, a vision-threatening parasitic infection. The organism consumes corneal cells, dissolving the cornea as the infection progresses, resulting in eventual vision loss.
Avoiding the dangers
Cosmetic contact lenses pose numerous risks if misused, but by taking precautions and adhering to the safety rules, such risks can be prevented in advance. Ensuring hygiene and getting the correct prescription are the two most essential points to take note when using cosmetic contact lenses.
To ensure hygiene, it is crucial that hands are clean and dry at all times when handling the lenses. With the exception of daily disposables, contact lenses should be removed, cleansed, and stored every night before going to bed. Contact lenses should be stored in saline solution instead of regular tap water, and the solution should be replaced daily to prevent proliferation of germs. It is also important to clean and disinfect the contact lenses case every few days by leaving it to air-dry in a non-humid environment.
Furthermore, regardless of the type of contact lenses, the correct prescription must be provided by an expert. Professor Kim recommends the prescription to be given by an optometrist rather than conventional eyeglass stores, and consumers should check the rate of oxygen transmission before purchasing. Most importantly, contact lenses must fit and be comfortable when inserted. If there is even a slight discomfort, the lenses should be removed immediately, and one should visit an ophthalmologist with the contact lenses to examine the cause of discomfort.
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With the recent rise in popularity and usage of colorful cosmetic contact lenses, it should be recognized that they, like regular ones, are medical devices, not mere beauty enhancers. There is nothing wrong with pursuing beauty, but it should not be done at the cost of one’s own health, especially if it is something that is preventable through correct usage and by taking precautions. One should be fully aware of the possible risks before blindly following beauty trends.
***Inner Harbor Optometry