This year, many Halloween parties are heading online due to guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay home during COVID-19. So you might be more tempted than usual to try out colored contact lenses. But beware: Costume contact lenses can blind you if not used correctly. And many costume contact lenses are sold without a doctor’s prescription, which is illegal in the United States.
"Consumers need to know that permanent eye damage can occur from using non-prescription lenses," says Thomas Steinemann, MD, a practicing ophthalmologist at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. "Personally, I have seen far too many serious cases in both children and adults from using decorative lenses."
What are costume contact lenses?
Costume contact lenses – also known as cosmetic or decorative contact lenses – are contact lenses that change how your eyes look. These contact lenses can make your eyes look different in many ways, from changing the eye’s color or pupil shape to giving cartoon or film character effects. They can be made with or without vision correction.
Are colored contacts safe?
Costume contacts can be worn safely if you see a doctor first and follow their advice. Remember that contact lenses are medical devices that require a commitment to proper wear and care by the wearer. If not used correctly, all contact lenses can increase your chance of an eye infection.
The best way to ensure safety when using contact lenses is to see an eye care professional first. An ophthalmologist can measure your eyes for properly fit contacts, assess whether or not you are a good candidate for contacts, and offer safety tips.
After you have been to an ophthalmologist and received a prescription, be sure to only buy costume contacts from retailers who require a prescription to purchase the lenses and who only sell FDA-approved contact lenses.
How can Halloween contacts be dangerous?
Packaging that claims 'one size fits all' or 'no need to see an eye doctor' is wrong. Non-prescription costume contacts can cut, scratch and infect your eye if they don't fit exactly right. They should be customized and tailored to each individual.
Mis-sized lenses can cause corneal abrasions, corneal ulcers and potentially blinding painful bacterial infections like keratitis. Costume or theatrical contact lenses also might let less oxygen through to the eye, because the paints and pigments used to add color make the lenses thicker and less breathable.
Treating these injuries can require eye surgery, like a corneal transplant. And treatment doesn’t always work. People have been blinded by costume contact lenses.
How many eye injuries are caused by costume contact lenses?
There are no comprehensive studies of how many injuries costume contact lenses cause. However, we hear anecdotally from ophthalmologists that they see contact-related injuries each year despite FDA regulations. A 2018 study found over 85% of people wearing contacts had at least one behavior putting them at risk for a serious contact lens–related eye infection.
Why are stores and online retailers selling colored contact lenses without a prescription if it's not safe?
These retailers are breaking the law. In the U.S., it has been illegal to sell contact lenses without a prescription since 2005. Federal law classifies all contact lenses as medical devices and restricts their distribution to licensed eye care professionals. Illegal sale of contact lenses can result in civil penalties of up to $16,000 per violation. If you see contact lenses being sold by retailers not requiring a prescription, you can report the retailer to the FDA.
Illegally sold circle lenses bypass several crucial safeguards, such as a lens fitting and instructions about wear and care that are specific to you, your eyes and the contacts you are prescribed. Dr. Steinemann also warns that counterfeit lenses are common if you’re buying through an illegal outlet. Some illegal lenses have even been found to be re-packaged and can be contaminated with chemicals or germs when you receive them.
If you’re buying lenses that haven’t been FDA-approved or you’re buying through a dealer who isn’t regulated by the FDA, you can’t be sure what you’re receiving. The lenses you get may not be what you ordered, they may not be clean or correctly packaged and they may not be the right size or shape for your eye to begin with. The risks aren’t worth it.
How to report a problem
If you have had a problem with colored contact lenses, report it to your local FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator.
Real people, real problems with colored contact lenses
Facts about colored contacts and Halloween safety