What Exactly Are We Putting In Our Eyes?
Updated: May 25
By Ben Chadwick
In the United States, around 61 million adults are ‘at high risk’ for sustaining serious vision problems, according to the Center for Disease Control. The CDC also estimates that 3% of children today are visually impaired in ways that cannot be corrected with glasses or contacts (Fast Facts). Vision defects have afflicted humans for a very long time: they feature among our most common and annoying problems. Contact lenses, a modern remedy many of us are familiar with, actually originate as an idea from the 16th century speculations of Leonardo da Vinci, when he sketched out in his journal the feasibility of using a bowl of water to improve one’s vision. Of course, he was far ahead of his time. Not until the 1880s would hard contact lenses be invented, and for many decades they had little in common with the ease and comfort of the ones we have today. People wore them, though, despite their weight and the risk of extreme pain caused by the hard shells of the lenses depriving the eyes of oxygen (“Da Vinci to Disposable”). Today, over 2.2 billion people in the world have vision problems (Mounk). Although glasses remain the cheapest way to deal with these problems, millions now use much-improved soft contact lenses, often for cosmetic reasons.
In the United States, contacts are relatively expensive, with visits to an optometrist required by law to obtain them--where one is often pushed to buy a certain, expensive brand. This might seem like an outrage in comparison to many other countries, such as Peru, where they can in fact be purchased over the counter at regular drug stores (Mounk). However, it’s far too easy to take the safety of contact lenses for granted. When it comes to regulation protecting the eyes, it's better to err on the side of caution. Hubble, a recent startup, is a case study which demonstrates this perfectly. Hubble is trying to disrupt the daily contact lens market by offering subscription services for $39 a month (Maheshwari). Customers assume that Hubble's lenses are just less-expensive versions of the same products their doctors prescribe them, and see Hubble as having successfully made inroads into a market which might appear unfairly dominated by big brands with opaque profit margins. However, to cut costs, Hubble uses lower-quality materials and lacks the rigorous manufacturing and quality-control processes that more established companies maintain. Many of its users have reported problems. Dr. Lauren Lodholz, an optometrist based in Kentucky, reported that one in every two of her patients who adopts Hubble experiences issues such as corneal ulcers.
As one doctor who was approached by Hubble and refused to work with them put it, “contact lenses are not generic items like socks or razors… even small micron level changes in something such as the edge design can completely alter the fit and safety profile of a contact lens” (Maheshwari). It’s easy to see why one could assume the major brands are overpriced, and that smaller companies can undercut them with essentially the same product and a more internet-savvy business model in this age of instant delivery and subscription boxes. Since the exact constituent materials of contacts and the way they’re manufactured and quality-controlled can have large consequences for one’s vision, it’s worth knowing what goes into producing them.
The process wasn’t always as simple as getting up, opening the tab of a little plastic container, and pressing it on your eye. In the 1940s, when contacts were still novel, exact molds were sometimes made of a person's eyes by the contact lens makers, who then hand-made the plastic contacts (Fessenden). Not until the 1960s did the modern soft contact lens emerge. What made it possible was a new type of plastic called hydrogel, which was soft and flexible, yet malleable enough to hold a specific shape (“Da Vinci to Disposable”). Methods for mass-production of contacts were also developed around this time, and there are two major ones. The first is called lathe cutting. It involves placing the material on a wheel which rotates up to six thousand revolutions per minute (How Our Contacts Are Made). The other method, injection molding, is the more common way of manufacturing contacts and a little more straightforward. Essentially, the substance of the contacts is melted into a liquid, and then poured into molds (How Our Contacts Are Made). Of course, there are additional stages of quality control and hydrating the contacts (Ph. D., Biomedical Sciences, et. al.). Different brands have different formulas and ways of making their contacts. Which is best for a person depending on what one’s eyes need. The development of mass-manufactured and safe, soft contact lenses, however, has been a boon to those who don’t wish to wear glasses.
As consumers are becoming increasingly more conscious of the effect of mass production and ballooning populations around the world, price and convenience are no longer the only angle. The producers and decision-makers of society, from banks to billionaire presidential candidates to companies, are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that they are fighting the good fight and being environmentally conscious. Plastic contact lenses are obviously not reusable or recyclable in any way. They are a somewhat unique product in this regard, as they are designed to be resistant to water and have chemical additives for safety purposes. In a study submitted to the American Chemical Society, Rolf Halden, PhD, found that close to a fifth of contact wearers throw them down the drain or toilet. They end up being particular problems in sewers and wastewater plants. Worse, once released into natural environments, they gradually dissociate into microplastics which sink down and affect aquatic life (“The Environmental Cost of Contact Lenses”). In addition, these plastic remnants have been found to end up in drinking water reserves.
Obviously, the responsible thing to do is to throw contacts directly into the trash. A solution to the plastic problem is not immediately on the horizon--at least, not for a product entirely made of plastic, such as contact lenses. However, consumers are able to exert powerful forces for good when they know the basics of the industries around us and the ethical choices to be made in choosing and using products.
“The Environmental Cost of Contact Lenses.” ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180819160710.htm. Accessed 1 Mar. 2020.
“Da Vinci to Disposable: A History of Contact Lenses.” Eye Society, 24 Jan. 2020, https://www.1800contacts.com/eyesociety/da-vinci-to-disposable-a-history-of-contact-lenses/.
Fast Facts | Common Eye Disorders | Basics | VHI | CDC. 20 Feb. 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/visionhealth/basics/ced/fastfacts.htm
Fessenden, Marissa. “How Contact Lenses Were Made in 1948.” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-contact-lenses-were-made-and-fitted-1948-180957028/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2020.
How Our Contacts Are Made | CooperVision. https://coopervision.com/blog/how-our-contacts-are-made. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.
Maheshwari, Sapna. “Contact Lens Start-Up, Big on Social Media, May Be Bad for Eyes, Doctors Say.” The New York Times, 21 July 2019. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/21/business/media/hubble-contact-lens.html.
Mounk, Yascha. “The Great American Eye-Exam Scam.” The Atlantic, 27 Nov. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/great-american-eye-exam-scam/602482/.
Ph. D., Biomedical Sciences, et al. “Here’s What Contact Lenses Are Made Of.” ThoughtCo, https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-contact-lenses-made-of-4117551. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.