It’s a misconception that dry eyes and contact lenses are like oil and water. Sure, having dry eyes means the tear film meant to moisturize your eyeballs isn’t working as well as it should, but it doesn’t rule out your ability to wear contacts. It can, however, make the whole thing a little more challenging, Alisha Fleming, O.D., an optometrist at Penn Medicine, tells SELF. “Improper contact lens wear and care can cause dry eye issues and can also exacerbate dry eye issues,” Dr. Fleming says. If you have dry eyes and wear contacts (or want to), follow these rules to make the experience go as swimmingly as possible.
1. Wash your hands really well before you touch your lenses. (Yes, every time.)
It seems obvious, but be real, how often do you do this? If your answer isn’t “every single time, even when I’m exhausted and my bed is calling to me,” that’s a problem. Touching your contacts with clean hands makes it less likely that you’ll transfer infection-causing pathogens from your fingers to your lenses and into your eyes, Nicky Lai, O.D., associate professor of clinical optometry at The Ohio State University, tells SELF. The American Optometric Association (AOA) specifically recommends washing your hands with water and mild soap, then thoroughly drying them with a lint-free towel before you handle your lenses.
2. Never sleep in your contacts.
Doing so puts you at a higher risk of developing an infection on your cornea (the transparent, dome-shaped surface of your eye), the AOA says. That’s because sleeping in your contacts doesn’t allow your eyes to receive as much oxygen as they otherwise would, creating a potential breeding ground for things like bacteria, Dr. Lai says. Corneal infections can also lead to corneal ulcers, which are essentially sores on the surface of your eye.
Even if you escape that fate, sleeping in your contacts can mess with your natural tear film and make your dry eyes worse, Dr. Lai says, so it’s a no-go all around.
3. Use fresh lenses as directed instead of trying to extend your contacts’ wear time.
If you wear your lenses until they’re practically crumbling out of your eyeballs, this one’s for you. Somewhere on the box your contacts come in, it should tell you how often to wear a fresh pair. Make your eye doctor proud—and keep your eyes safe—by following those instructions.
Even if you’re meticulous about cleaning your lenses after every wear, debris can build up on them over time, making it harder for tears to spread evenly across your eyeballs, Vivian Shibayama, O.D., an optometrist and contact lens specialist with UCLA Health, tells SELF. As you can imagine, this won’t do your dry eyes any favors. And if you’re not meticulous about cleaning your lenses while using them for way too long, it’s even easier for them to collect irritating debris and microorganisms like bacteria that can cause infection.
4. Change out the solution in your lens case daily.
Topping off the solution in your contact lens case makes sense from a thrifty perspective, but it’s not a good idea. Instead, the AOA recommends dumping out the old stuff and putting in new solution every day. “After the lens is removed from the case and placed on the eye, the case should be emptied and rinsed with contact lens solution, then set upside down to dry on a clean tissue paper,” Dr. Lai says. “Reusing contact lens solution decreases the effectiveness of the disinfection properties of the solution,” Dr. Lai explains, which can lead to issues like inflammation and infection. Here are other contact lens case mistakes you should never make, FYI.
5. Use rewetting drops even when your eyes don’t feel dry.
Artificial tears are often the first line of defense if you have dry eyes. You should actually use them even when your eyes feel fine because that helps to prevent dryness from cropping up, the Mayo Clinic says. “I tell my patients to use drops like sunscreen,” Dr. Shibayama says. “They should be used before the eyes feel dry, just like we use sunscreen before we become burned.”
6. Let your eyes breathe by going contacts-free for a few hours a day.
While it’s tempting to wear your contacts from the time you open your eyes until you conk out at night, this really isn’t a great when you have dry eyes. “It’s a good idea to let the eyes breathe for a few hours without the lens,” Dr. Shibayama says. This allows your eyes to get good exposure to oxygen and receive nourishment from your natural tear film without lenses in the way.
Dr. Shibayama’s general rule: You should take your contacts out at least two hours before bedtime or try to wear them for two fewer hours than the time you’re awake. So, if you sleep for eight hours a day, you’re awake for 16, meaning you shouldn’t wear your lenses any longer than 14 straight hours. You can obviously play around with this a bit to figure out how much time off your eyes need, but the takeaway is that it’s good to give them some kind of break.
7. See your eye doctor every year (or however often is necessary to keep your prescription up-to-date).
When your schedule gets packed, eye doctor appointments may get short shrift. The thing is that you need to see your eye doctor at least once every two years as a baseline. If you use contact lenses, it should be more frequent than that to make sure your prescription is up-to-date, evaluate your tear film, and see if the contacts you use still work best for your eyes, Dr. Lai explains. “Don't wait until there is a problem before seeing your eye doctor,” Dr. Shibayama says. “This will ensure the longevity of your ability to wear contact lenses and reduce complications.”
8. If your brand of contacts is irritating your dry eyes, ask your doctor about special lenses made for this health issue.
There’s a slew of contact lens brands and types on the market, but some are designed to help people with dry eyes, the Mayo Clinic says. If your dry eye is severe, your doctor may recommend special contacts called scleral or bandage lenses, which help protect the surface of your eyes and lock in moisture. Who knew thirst traps could be as good in your eyes as they are on social media?