What Every Contact Lens Wearer Needs To Know (But Is Afraid To Ask)

If you’re one of the 36 million contact lens wearers in the U.S., chances are you went through a mini-course in hygiene when you first got your prescription. You know the drill: First wash your hands with soap and water before drying them with a clean, lint-free cloth or paper towel. Then, carefully take the contact lens out of your eye before gently “massaging” it in your hand with some solution to get the debris off. Pop the contact in a case that’s filled with fresh solution before screwing the lid on.

But if you’re being honest, how often do you actually follow all of these steps every single time you remove your contacts (which are technically medical devices)? And how often do you do things your optometrist or ophthalmologist warns you against — like sleeping or swimming in your contacts, or wearing your monthlies for longer than a month — figuring, “Eh, nothing bad has happened to me yet”?

We enlisted two eye-care experts — Andrea Thau, O.D., an associate clinical professor at the SUNY College of Optometry and a spokesperson for the American Optometric Association, as well as Rebecca Taylor, M.D., an ophthalmologist in private practice in Nashville, Tenn., and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology — to guide us through the common mistakes soft contact lens wearers make, what should be done instead, and the worst that can happen with poor hygiene. You might be convinced to change your bad habits for good.

What you’re doing: You let tap water come into contact with your contact lenses.
Why you should stop: Seems harmless enough, right? Wrong. That’s because tap water isn’t salty like tears are, so contact lenses tend to absorb the water and swell. The contact lens will then “hold” it, which is a problem because water — even water safe to drink — isn’t sterile and contains microorganisms. “If your lens swells, it changes how the lens fits on your eye and it will often make the lens tighten on the eye,” Thau says. This can then create microscopic breaks in your cornea that microorganisms can get into, potentially causing infection. That’s why it’s important not to shower or swim with your contact lenses in, she says (plus swimming in your contact lenses ups the chances of them coming out of your eye). In addition, you should never use water in place of solution for storing your contact lenses.

What you’re doing: Your contact lenses are bothering you but you don’t have solution with you, so you use water or your own saliva as “emergency” solution to wash them before popping them back in your eye.
Why you should stop: Two words: bad idea. For the same explanation above, exposing your contact lenses to water isn’t smart, and your saliva is ridden with bacteria that belong in your mouth and not your eye. Putting contacts in your mouth is “like putting them in a petri dish — you just don’t want to do that,” Taylor says.

If you do catch yourself in a situation where your contact lenses are bothering you but you don’t have access to solution and a contact lens case, Thau says your best bet is to just throw them away. Another option is to use lubricating drops made for contact lens wearers (not the kinds to combat red eye) to try to relieve any discomfort. And of course, it’s always wise to carry some emergency and a contact lens case with you at all times for moments like this.

What you’re doing: You re-use your solution.
Why you should stop: Recycling solution is like begging for an eye infection. All the debris and bacteria that are in your eyes and are on your contact lenses, come off into the solution. So if you’re re-using the same solution time and again, that means you’re letting your contact lenses stew in a bacteria-ridden pool of liquid — and then putting those same contacts right back into your eye. If you have any microscopic breaks in your cornea, those bacteria can then infect the cornea. Instead, take care to use fresh solution every single time you need to store your contacts. Or, if you hate dealing with solution and cases, consider daily disposable lenses.
What you’re doing: You’ve been using the same contact lens case for as long as you can remember.
Why you should stop: First things first: Go to your bathroom and throw that old case away. Contact lens cases should only be used for three months tops before you replace with a new one, Thau says.

What you’re doing: You wash your contact lens case with water, and then close it up before letting it dry completely.
Why you should stop: The best way to keep your contact lens case clean is to wash it with solution, not water, since (as you know by now) water shouldn’t come into contact with your contact lenses, Taylor says. Then wipe the case dry with a clean towel or let it air dry completely before putting the lids back on.

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