Halloween contact lenses are a horror story for your eyes

In the lead up to Halloween, novelty non-prescription contact lenses, easily obtained online, are frightening Australian optometrists for all the wrong reasons.

Here at Optometry Australia we are warning consumers not to buy any cosmetic contact lenses without consulting their optometrist.

The truly scary thing about these cosmetic contact lenses – made in zombie, werewolf and vampire varieties – can be found under the microscope. In a recent US case report published in the Journal of Forensic Science by the Food and Drug Administration's Forensic Chemistry Center, costume contact lenses were shown to have high rates of microbial contamination which can lead to ocular infections, conjunctivitis and even permanent visual impairment and blindness.

The study found 60 per cent of suspected counterfeit lenses and 27 per cent of the authentic non-corrective contact lenses, obtained directly from manufacturers without a prescription, were contaminated. Only three per cent of authentic, prescribed contact lenses were contaminated.

Furthermore, the report found unapproved, counterfeit and decorative contact lenses tested positive for the kinds of microbial contamination frequently found in hospital waste water or spoiled food.

Another study found that cosmetic contact lenses available online often circumvent regulation from safety agencies such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and can contain harmful chemicals such as chlorine, which can seep from the colourants in the lens to cause toxicity problems for the eyes.

Contact lenses aren’t costumes. They are medical devices worn on living tissue. It is essential they be purchased from an optometrist who will measure each eye to properly fit the lenses and evaluate how the eye responds to contact lens wear using a microscope.

These novelty items are often playfully packaged and targeted to teens who may have no experience using contact lenses. Not only do optometrists ensure contact lenses fit the wearer properly, they also instruct on appropriate insertion and removal techniques and correct contact lens care to minimise the risk of irreversible eye damage.

It’s scary to think how easily these dangerous lenses can be obtained online.

There are, however, many prescription cosmetic or decorative contact lenses available through optometrists that are safe when properly prescribed and monitored by an eye care professional.

Dangers of buying contact lenses online

An Australian study has shown there is a heightened risk of microbial keratitis – a potentially sight-threatening infection of the cornea – with contact lenses purchased online.

As reported recently in Australian Optometry, internet purchase of contact lenses was identified as a risk factor for contact lens-related microbial keratitis in an Australian study published in Ophthalmology in 2008.

It found that the risk of infection was 4.76 times higher for those consumers who bought their lenses from sources other than their optometrist, such as the internet or mail order, and they were less likely to comply with good eye-care practices.

Legal loopholes make regulation difficult

Of particular concern is that there is currently a dangerous legal ‘loophole’ which makes it easy for people to buy cosmetic contact lenses (CCLs) without a prescription, but each state has its own regulations.

While it’s illegal in the United States to sell CCLs without a prescription, in Australia it differs from state to state.

There is no specific piece of legislation in Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania that regulates the sale of non-prescription contact lenses. In New South Wales, only an optometrist or optical dispenser can supply CCLs but you don't need a prescription. In South Australia it's illegal to sell CCLs without a valid prescription. However, patients aren't aware of these laws and young people are a simple Google search away from purchasing them online.

The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law Act 2009 states that you have to be an optometrist (or trained medical practitioner) to write out a prescription for a contact lenses, but this leaves a massive legal loophole as there is nothing to stop anyone from actually selling cosmetic contact lenses.

This is why Optometry Australia’s warning in the lead up to Halloween is such an important one. It’s so easy for young people to obtain novelty contact lenses online, but the risk of infection is real and the consequences can be devastating.

This Halloween we don’t want to hear of yet another report of a young person suffering vision impairment caused by novelty lenses.

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