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Are cheap contacts really a good idea?

Shop for contact lenses in-store or online, and you might find your eyes gravitating toward the lowest price. This is natural; contacts can be expensive, and you want to save as much money as you can.

But in the case of something you physically place onto your eyeball, are cheap contacts such a good idea?

That depends. “Cheap” can have different meanings for different people:

  • Some people think of the most affordable option from a company they know and trust.

  • Others search the internet for the cheapest contacts they can find, regardless of a seller’s reputation. 

This is where things can get a little sticky.

Cheap contact lenses vs. more expensive lenses

Contact lens prices vary depending on where you buy them — even for the same type, brand and prescription.

To get an idea of costs, let’s assume your eye doctor has given you a few different lens options with your contact lens prescription. Remember: Unlike with glasses, your contact prescription should include a lens brand and material. 

As you glance across the three lens options, you’re a little surprised by the prices. For a one-year supply, you’ll pay: 

  • $150 for option A

  • $250 for option B 

  • $600 for option C 

No matter which option you choose, you’re planning to buy a few boxes from this particular optical shop. But if all contacts look and feel so similar, how can one lens cost several times more than another?

There are a few factors that cause contact lens prices to vary:

  • Length of intended wear – The longer you can keep a pair of contacts, the cheaper they are to buy (however, this comes at the cost of routine lens care). Daily disposable contacts tend to be more expensive than weekly, biweekly and monthly lenses because they require a new pair every day.

  • Your vision prescription – Soft contact lenses that correct astigmatism (toric lenses) cost more than lenses that don’t.

  • Lens features and technology – Some lenses advertise unique (and costly) features that offer better breathability, less dryness and longer-lasting comfort.

  • Brand name – Like clothes, shoes and food, some contact lens brand names come at a higher price than others.

These factors can affect price, but as long as the lenses are approved by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and they come from a legitimate retailer, the lenses should be safe to use.

That said, certain types of contacts may suit your eyes better than others. After a contact lens eye exam, your eye doctor will suggest a few different types of lenses for you to try on in your updated prescription. 

They’ll check the fit by looking at your eyes while you wear a trial pair of lenses, and ask you how comfortable they are.

SEE RELATED: A complete guide to contact lenses

Buying cheap contact lenses online

For the most part, buying contacts online is relatively safe in the 2020s.

Reputable lens manufacturers follow FDA guidelines and strict quality assurance standards to ensure their lenses are safe before they’re shipped off to a verified retailer and, eventually, a customer.

But some less-than-legitimate retailers may still find ways to get past these guidelines. This isn’t exactly legal, but these companies do exist. Keep a watchful eye on any site that offers suspiciously low prices, and never buy contacts from a site that doesn’t require a prescription.

The FDA provides a few general tips for consumers buying contact lenses:

  • Order your contacts through a reputable company, preferably one you’re familiar with.

  • Request the printed patient information from the manufacturer for your specific type of lens.

  • Avoid any substitutions the company suggests or fills without your permission. If it’s verified by your eye doctor, it’s still good to check with your doctor yourself.

  • Carefully double-check all measurements and brand information after you get your lenses.

Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you have any doubts, check with your eye doctor and make sure the retailer is safe to buy contacts from.

What about cheap colored contacts?

When a product comes into contact with your eye, it needs to be safe. That’s why the FDA labels all contact lenses as health devices — even non-corrective colored contacts and the ones you might wear on Halloween — so they still have to abide by strict guidelines.

Counterfeit or unapproved colored contact lenses pose some of the biggest threats to lens wearers, especially when online shopping is so popular.

These lenses can be contaminated with microbial organisms, which can lead to serious eye infections and, in turn, permanently damage your eyes and/or your vision.

One study of costume lenses found microbial contamination on:

  • 60% of the counterfeit lenses examined

  • 27% of the unapproved lenses examined

  • 48% of all non-corrective lenses examined (from 29 different brands)

Like regular contacts, colored lenses also need to snugly fit the shape of your eyeball, something that can be determined from your vision prescription.

Lenses that are the wrong size for your eye can cause painful, sometimes permanent damage to its fragile surface.

To protect yourself, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends buying colored lenses only from retailers who require a prescription and only sell FDA-approved lenses. The FDA themselves also stress the need for a vision prescription.

A South Carolina man was blinded in one eye and had to undergo years’ worth of painful eye surgeries when a pair of $20 colored contacts caused a severe eye infection.

Situations like this, while uncommon, can happen to anyone. If you’re thinking about buying colored contacts, know the risks and talk about it with an optometrist or ophthalmologist before you take out your credit card.

READ MORE: How to care for soft contact lenses

List of contact lenses. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Updated April 2019.

Buying contact lenses. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. October 2020.

Busted: Feds seize hundreds of illegal, counterfeit contact lenses. American Optometric Association. October 2019.

Identification of microorganisms isolated from counterfeit and unapproved decorative contact lenses. Journal of Forensic Sciences. May 2017.

Are costume contact lenses safe? American Academy of Ophthalmology. September 2020.

'Colored' and decorative contact lenses: A prescription is a must. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Updated July 2019.

How costume contacts blinded Julian in one eye. American Academy of Ophthalmology. October 2014.

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