For Consumers

'Colored' and Decorative Contact Lenses: A Prescription Is A Must

This overview of safe use for decorative and colored contacts includes tips for proper care.

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Wouldn’t it be cool to have vampire eyes for Halloween? Or deep violet eyes to match your purple sweater? How about your favorite sports team’s logo on your eyes just for fun?

You can have all of these looks with decorative contact lenses (sometimes called “fashion,” “costume,” or “colored” contact lenses). These lenses don’t correct vision—they just change how your eyes look.

But you need a prescription to avoid eye injury. Before buying decorative lenses, here’s what you should know.

They are not cosmetics or over-the-counter merchandise. They are medical devices regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Places that advertise them as cosmetics or sell them over-the-counter, without a prescription, are breaking the law.

They are not “one size fits all.” An eye doctor (ophthalmologist or optometrist) must measure each eye to properly fit the lenses and evaluate how your eye responds to contact lens wear. A poor fit can cause serious eye damage, including:

  • scratches on the cornea (the clear dome of tissue over the iris—the part of the eye that gives you your eye color)
  • corneal infection (an ulcer or sore on the cornea)
  • conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • decreased vision
  • blindness

Places that sell decorative lenses without a prescription may give you few or no instructions on how to clean and care for your lenses. Failure to use the proper solution to keep contact lenses clean and moist can lead to infections, says Bernard P. Lepri, O.D., M.S., M.Ed., an FDA optometrist in the agency’s Contact Lens and Retinal Devices Branch. “Bacterial infections can be extremely rapid, result in corneal ulcers, and cause blindness—sometimes within as little as 24 hours if not diagnosed and treated promptly.”

“The problem isn’t with the decorative contacts themselves,” adds Lepri. “It’s the way people use them improperly—without a valid prescription, without the involvement of a qualified eye care professional, or without appropriate follow-up care.”

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Where NOT to Buy Contact Lenses

FDA is aware that many places illegally sell decorative contact lenses to consumers without valid prescriptions for as little as $20.

You should never buy lenses from:

  • street vendors
  • salons or beauty supply stores
  • boutiques
  • flea markets
  • novelty stores
  • Halloween stores
  • record or video stores
  • convenience stores
  • beach shops
  • Internet sites that do not require a prescription

These are not authorized distributors of contact lenses, which are prescription devices by federal law. You can talk with your eye care provider if you have questions. And if you find a Web site you think is illegally selling contact lenses over the Web, you should report it to FDA.

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How to Safely Wear Decorative Contact Lenses

An entertainment industry artist from American Horror Story and the FDA confirm decorative contact lenses are not one-size-fits-all—and require a prescription from a licensed eye doctor.

Get an eye exam from a licensed eye doctor (ophthalmologist or optometrist), even if you feel your vision is perfect.

Get a valid prescription that includes the brand name, lens measurements, and an expiration date.

Don’t buy anime or circle lenses—and don’t expect your eye doctor to prescribe them. These bigger-than-normal lenses that give the wearer a wide-eyed, doll-like look have not been cleared by the FDA.

Buy the lenses from a seller that requires you to provide a prescription, whether you purchase them in person or shop online.

Follow all directions for cleaning, disinfecting, and wearing the lenses, and visit your eye doctor for follow-up eye exams. It‘s especially important to read and follow all instructions because you can injure your eyes if you do not use these medical device products according to the labeling. (See additional information about cleaning solutions with hydrogen peroxide on the FDA website.)

See your eye doctor right away if you have signs of possible eye infection:

  • redness
  • eye pain that doesn’t go away after a short time
  • decrease in vision

This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

Updated: February 26, 2016

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