There are nearly four million contact lens wearers in the UK, and most of them wear soft lenses. They are suitable for almost anyone who wants to wear lenses. These are available as single-use daily, fortnightly and monthly disposable lenses, and more specialist lenses that are designed to last for longer. You can also choose bifocal or multifocal/varifocal contact lenses.
Soft contact lenses mould to shape of your eye so they are comfortable, flexible and ‘breathable’ for long periods of wear. They are a good choice for anyone wants to switch between contact lenses and glasses frequently. If you reuse your contact lenses you need to clean and disinfect them after each use to make them safe to wear. Your optometrist can advise on the best solutions to use.
Soft contact lenses are available as daily disposable lenses. These are designed for single use only, so you throw them away once you have worn them. This means they are more convenient than reusable lenses and they may be more hygienic, as you do not have to clean and disinfect them at home. However, it is important to remember that contact lenses are too small to recycle, and their packing (foil covered blister packs) cannot be recycled by most local UK councils. Put your contact lenses and packing into the bin – never down the toilet or plughole. Some optometrists are able to offer an environmentally friendly contact lens disposal scheme.
Hard lenses/rigid gas permeable lenses (RGP lenses)
Hard lenses do not mould to the shape of your eyes and so take a little more getting used to than soft ones. However, they may be more suitable for you if you have astigmatism. This is because your tears fill in the gap between the lens and your eye, neutralising the astigmatism and allowing you to see clearly, without special astigmatic (toric) contact lenses. However, if you have a lot of astigmatism, ‘ordinary’ hard lenses may be uncomfortable or fall out, and you may need to wear toric RGP lenses. These are more rugby-ball shaped and so less likely to rotate on your eye, giving you more stable vision.
RGP lenses are not available as daily disposable lenses, so you need to clean and disinfect them after each use to make them safe to wear. Your optometrist can advise on the best solutions to use.
Some children feel self-conscious wearing glasses, while others find that they can get in the way when they are playing sports. Most optometrists think it is fine for children to wear contact lenses as long as they are able to insert and remove them, and can care for them themselves with minimal supervision. Ask your optometrist if your child can try wearing lenses before you buy some. It is probably best to do this during the school holidays when there is more time to practise.
Some younger children may need to wear contact lenses for a specific eye condition and will need help with the wear and care.
Read our case studies:
Sam’s optometrist felt he would benefit from wearing contact lenses while on the pitch.
Madaline’s glasses interfered with her sport.
Cosmetic and novelty contact lenses, also known as plano or zero-powered lenses are used to temporarily change the colour of your eyes or provide zombie or vampire eyes for a fancy dress party. As these touch your eyes, it is important that they are fitted to make sure they are safe to wear. In the UK it is illegal to sell these contact lenses unless this is by or under the supervision of an optometrist, dispensing optician or doctor, so make sure you always buy your lenses from somewhere that does this.
Novelty lenses are often purchased by people who do not wear contact lenses regularly and who may not know how to handle and care for them safely. It is essential that you are able to remove and insert your contact lenses safely and know how to keep them sterile.
Driving with novelty lenses at night (even if you wear glasses over the top) is also a potential danger. If the lenses are strongly tinted or opaque they may impair your vision if the hole that you look through does not align with your pupil.
Providing you have a valid contact lens specification, you can buy your contact lenses from wherever you wish. If you do not purchase from the practice where your lenses were fitted, make sure that you buy your lenses from a reputable source, and that they are the same as the ones you were fitted with and which are on your specification. Only then can you be sure that the lenses are suitable for you. Wherever you purchase your lenses from, it is important to have regular check-ups.
Have regular check-ups
It is important to have regular check-ups to make sure that your contact lenses are still suitable and are not damaging your eyes. Your optometrist will tell you how often you need to have check-ups, as this will depend on factors such as the type of lenses that you wear and how long you wear them for. Wherever you buy your lenses you should check whether the price you are paying includes these check-ups. Your contact lens specification (prescription) will contain an expiry date. You will not be able to buy lenses after that date. It is important that you have a contact lens check-up before your specification runs out if you want to continue to buy lenses.
Wash your hands!
Research by the College of Optometrists suggests that two-fifths of people don’t wash their hands before handling their lenses. To reduce the chance of infection you should always wash and dry your hands before touching your eyes or your contact lenses. Use liquid soap rather than a bar of soap. If you are at home you should try to use your own towel. If you are not at home you should dry your hands with an air dryer or paper towel wherever possible.
Only use the recommended solutions
If you have reusable lenses, clean and store them using the solutions recommended by your contact lens practitioner, and throw away solutions that are past their sell by or discard by date. Never rinse or store your lenses in tap water. And don’t forget your contact lens case. Make sure that you clean the case every day – by rinsing it with fresh contact lens solution – and throw it away as recommended by your contact lens practitioner.
If you drop your lens- make sure you clean it with your recommended solution before putting it in your eye. Never lick your lenses before inserting them! This is unhygienic and can cause eye infections.
Watch our video on applying soft contact lenses:
Inserting and removing your lenses
Your contact lens practitioner will make sure that you are able to handle the lenses safely before you take them home. Most people are able to put their lenses in and take them out without any problems, although it can take some practice. If you need to wear glasses for reading, you may find you need to put your glasses on to handle your contact lenses.
Some contact lenses are lightly tinted to make it easier for you to see them when you are putting them in and taking them out. This tint will not affect your sight and you will not notice it when you wear your contact lenses.
Watch our video on removing soft contact lenses:
Don’t leave your lenses in too long
Don’t leave your lenses in longer than advised by your optometrist. Although some contact lenses have been designed to wear overnight, research has shown that sleeping in contact lenses increases the risk of infection, including corneal ulcers. Our advice is to remove your lenses before you go to bed. If your optometrist has told you that you can sleep in your contact lenses, it is important that you know what complications may develop and how to look out for them. You must also be able to take your lenses out in an emergency and we recommend you have some back-up glasses in case you cannot wear your contact lenses.
What to do if your lens comes off the front of your eye
Sometimes, if you accidentally rub your eyes, for example, your lens can move from the front of your eye and become lodged under your eyelid or another part of your eyeball. When this happens attempt to carefully slide the lens back onto your cornea or remove the lens. If you can locate the lens you can try moving it back into place (or to the corner of your eye, where you can remove it more easily) by gently massaging your closed eyelid. If you are unable to do this, contact your optometrist for advice.
Avoid tap water
You should avoid showering while wearing your contact lenses. Water may contain a number of nasty microbes including acanthamoeba, which can cause a very painful infection and permanently damage your eyesight. Swimming in your contact lenses is also not recommended. Wear swimming goggles – you can have them made to your prescription – ask your optometrist.
Wearing makeup with contact lenses
Put your lenses in before you apply your make up and remove your lenses before you take your make up off. This will help to avoid getting makeup behind your contact lenses. Use water soluble, rather than waterproof, eye makeup as this will dissolve if it gets into your eyes. If you wear eyeliner, apply it along the outer edge of your eyelid, not along the wet part that touches your eyeball.
Have your glasses handy
It is important to have back-up glasses – in case you have a problem with your contact lenses or to give your eyes a rest.
Can I buy contact lenses online?
You do not have to buy your lenses from the same practice as you had your eye examination or contact lens check-up. However, your contact lenses must be the right prescription to allow you to see clearly, and the right shape to stop them from damaging your eyes. This means they must be fitted by a qualified optometrist, contact lens optician or doctor. When they are satisfied that the lenses are suitable for you, they will give you a copy of your contact lens specification (prescription).
Wherever you buy your lenses it is important to make sure that you get them from a reputable source and that they are the same as the ones you have been fitted with, as only then can you be sure that they are suitable for you.
How should I dispose of my contact lenses and packaging?
Almost 750,000,000,000 (three quarters of a billion) soft contact lens are flushed down the toilet or sent to landfill in the UK each year. However, they are now recyclable through a programme set up by lens manufacturer ACUVUE in partnership with TerraCycle, a company which specialises in recycling hard-to-recycle materials.
You can take your used lenses and blister packs, which are plastic topped with foil, to communal collection points in practices across the UK. They will then be sorted, shredded and washed, before being densified into hard-granulated plastic granules that can be incorporated into the production of different plastic products such as benches.
There are more than 1200 drop off points across the UK – find a contact lens recycling point near you.
Solutions bottle are typically made from HDPE (High-density polythene) or PET (polythene terephthalate) plastic (if they are clear) and can be usually be collected and recycled with other household waste.
You can get more information about contact lenses from the British Contact Lens Association.