Can I Buy Contact Lenses
Without a Prescription?
That said, let's define some terms to avoid confusion...
The phrase "non-prescription contact lenses" often is used to describe contacts with no power to correct nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism. Examples of non-prescription (also called "plano") contact lenses are color or special-effect contacts worn at Halloween or other times by people with perfect vision for the sole purpose of altering their appearance.
But because all contact lenses cover the surface of the eye and therefore present a risk of eye infections or other problems especially if the lenses are not fitted, worn and cared for properly even contacts like Halloween lenses with no corrective power are considered medical devices and require a valid contact lens prescription that specifies the brand and parameters of the lenses.
Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act
The Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act gives you the right to request and receive a copy of your contact lens prescription from your eye doctor so you can shop around when buying contacts to get the best deal, based on price, convenience and other factors.
The Act was passed by Congress in 2003 and required the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to develop guidelines that spell out the Act's requirements and enforce its provisions.
The FTC issued these guidelines called the Contact Lens Rule in July 2004. The Rule establishes requirements both for eye doctors who prescribe contact lenses and retailers who sell them.
Rules for Contact Lens Prescribers
The Contact Lens Rule says that eye care professionals who are permitted under state law to fit and issue prescriptions for contact lenses must:
- Give a copy of the contact lens prescription to the patient at the end of the contact lens fitting even if the patient doesn't ask for it.
- Provide or verify the contact lens prescription to anyone who is designated to act on behalf of the patient, including contact lens sellers.
- When responding to a contact lens verification request from a seller, correct any inaccuracy in the prescription being verified and inform the seller if the prescription has expired or is otherwise invalid.
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Rules for Contact Lens Sellers
The Contact Lens Rule requires contact lens sellers to:
- Provide contact lenses only in accordance with a valid prescription that is directly presented to the seller or has been verified by the contact lens prescriber.
- If verification is required such as when a consumer decides to buy contact lenses online and provides their contact lens information by filling out a webpage form sellers must contact the prescribing doctor to verify the accuracy of the prescription before filling the order.
Contact Lens Verification
Under the Contact Lens Rule, if a contact lens prescriber fails to communicate with a contact lens seller within eight business hours of receiving a complete verification request from the seller, the contact lens prescription is considered verified and the retailer can sell the contacts to the consumer without a response from the prescriber.
The Rule also requires contact lens sellers to maintain records of the contact lens prescriptions they fill, the prescription verification requests they send to doctors and prescriber responses to these requests.
All stipulations of the Contact Lens Rule apply to so-called "non-prescription" contact lenses lenses made for Halloween and other color contact lenses or special-effect contact lenses with no corrective power as well as standard contact lenses.
Remember, no matter what you call them, all contact lenses bought and sold in the United States require a valid contact lens prescription from an eye doctor.
You can get more information about the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act and the Contact Lens Rule by visiting the FTC website or calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.
About the Author: Gary Heiting, OD, is senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 25 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear industry. His special interests include contact lenses, nutrition and preventive vision care. Connect with Dr. Heiting via Google+.
[Page updated May 2015]