Optometrists care about patient health and safety. When you are interested in purchasing contact lenses, consider first the potential negative impacts of using online contact lenses vendors that may affect your vision health, eyes, and wallets. An educated consumer makes for healthy choices.

In this chaotic and busy world, it can feel convenient to simply go online, check your prescription, and order new contact lenses or eyeglasses and as many online sites would suggest you skip the doctor visit altogether.  There are substantial and risky pitfalls when using online vendors to obtain your contact lenses and glasses prescription rather from your trusted optometrist – and they could be a threat to your sight!

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Of the many occurrences of price fixing, illegitimate online eye exams, fraudulent consumer information, and breaches of federal regulations by online contact lens vendors that have occurred, the most recent event resulted in legal action when in January  The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that the government would fine Hubble contacts 3.5 million dollars for violating the Contact Lens Rule and illegally substituting contact lenses (Read more about this, here). With all events of this type, there is not just financial burden to the consumer but more importantly, these firms are placing the consumer’s vision and health at severe risk for their profit.

A substantial number of case reports of ophthalmic complications associated with contact lenses obtained through illegal and unregulated sources of supply reveal a number of instances in which an inexperienced user purchases lenses or plano decorative contact lenses over-the-counter without having the proper training on usage and storage, leading to microbial keratitis -a sight threatening disorder.  [i] [ii]

Several investigations into the trafficking of counterfeit and unapproved contact lenses have included testing, which has revealed high levels of bacteria that could cause significant health problems. The presence of bacteria and other toxins are the result of poor sanitary conditions during packaging and improper storage during the shipping process. Additionally, the coloring on decorative contact lenses may be made of lead-based materials that leach directly into the eye.”  And yet, many online sites will still continue to place the patient in jeopardy to sell these illegal lenses.” [iii]

Some other problematic issues include online vendors 1) failing to properly verify consumers’ prescriptions; 2) selling contacts after prescription verification requests were denied; 3) altering prescriptions by substituting its own brand when that wasn’t what the consumer was prescribed; and 4) failing to maintain required records.

Here is how you can protect yourself and be a smart consumer:

One page summary from the American Optometric Association on the risks consumers face when getting an online vision test.First, online eye exams are illegal in 13 states including New Jersey. This does not pertain to problem-focused telehealth platforms tended to by licensed practitioners. [iv]

Check for online vendors disclaimers that state that their prescription checks do not constitute a comprehensive eye examination or test for abnormalities, diseases, or risk factions of disease.

In the State of New Jersey, It is a criminal offense to sell or distribute contact lenses or eyeglasses without a license in the State of New Jersey. There are laws which prohibit companies and their employees from falsely presenting themselves as an optometrist, ophthalmologist, or licensed optician. [v]  [vi]  [vii]

As per the FDA: “A valid prescription helps ensure consumers get contact lenses that are determined to be safe and effective by the FDA. Without it, people can risk serious eye injuries or loss of eyesight for one night of fun,” said George M. Karavetsos, Director, FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations. “We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who attempt to circumvent the regulatory process and put the public’s health at risk.” [viii]

Patients/consumers should use common sense to prevent putting yourself or your loved ones at risk.

Online vendors often use a common marketing technique by advertising the “sale price” by showing a crossed-out “actual price” which is very often equal to or greater than what your eye doctor would offer you.

Ordering contacts through your eye doctor can be less expensive in many cases! Most importantly, your trusted local eye doctor will be available to help in maintaining your eye and systemic health. In addition, they are able to immediately apply vision plan benefits and offer higher manufacturer rebates giving you, the patient/consumer as great financial savings.[ix] [x]

In summary:

  • Infographic explaining the importance of comprehensive eye examsSee an eye care professional to get a prescription for your eyeglasses and/or contact lenses. It is better to purchase contacts only from licensed eye care professionals – being aware that online vendors and other establishments (beauticians, tattoo parlors, cosmetic store …) are not licensed to practice optometry or ophthalmology and do not have the proper training to engage in such activities.
  • Be aware of false claims: Packaging that claims “one size fits all” or “no need to see an eye doctor” is false.
  • Purchase only FDA-approved products.
  • Never share contacts. Sharing contacts can spread germs and bacteria, potentially causing sight threatening eye infections. Contact lenses not fitted properly for your eye can cause vision-threatening damage.
  • Practice good hygiene. It is important to follow directions for cleaning, disinfecting, and wearing contacts. See an your optometrist or ophthalmologist right away if you notice any swelling, redness, pain or discharge from wearing contacts.[xi]

[i] Graeme Young 1Alex G H YoungCarol Lakkis Review of complications associated with contact lenses from unregulated sources of supply. Eye Contact Lens 2014 Jan;40(1):58-64.  doi: 10.1097/ICL.0b013e3182a70ef7.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24296959/
[ii] Steinman, Thomas. Ocular Complications Associated with the Use of Cosmetic Contact Lenses from Unlicensed Vendors November 2003 Eye & Contact Lens Science & Clinical Practice 29(4):196-200 DOI:10.1097/00140068-200310000-00002Ocular Complications Associated with the Use of Cosmetic Contact Lenses from Unlicensed Vendors | Request PDF (researchgate.net)
[iii] https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/federal-authorities-warn-against-dangers-decorative-contact-lenses
[iv] https://americansforvisioncareinnovation.org/the-issue/
[v] https://law.justia.com/codes/new-jersey/2013/title-45/section-45-12-19/
[vi] https://law.justia.com/codes/new-jersey/2014/title-2c/section-2c-40-25/#:~:text=2C%3A40%2D25%20Persons%20permitted,%3B%20violations%2C%20fines%2C%20penalties.&text=No%20person%20shall%20dispense%20contact,or%20optometry%20in%20this%20State.
[vii] https://casetext.com/regulation/new-jersey-administrative-code/title-13-law-and-public-safety/chapter-33-state-board-of-ophthalmic-dispensers-and-ophthalmic-technicians/subchapter-4-dispensing-of-contact-lenses/section-1333-41-dispensing-of-contact-lenses
[viii] https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/federal-authorities-warn-against-dangers-decorative-contact-lenses
[ix] https://advancedfamilyeyecare.com/is-it-cheaper-to-buy-contacts-lenses-online/#:~:text=Fact%3A%20Ordering%20contacts%20through%20your,account%20for%20even%20better%20deals.
[x] Eyeglass & Contact Lens Store Buying Guide 07-01-2021 https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/eyeglass-contact-lens-stores/buying-guide/index.htm
[xi] https://www.newswise.com/articles/here-s-how-to-find-out-if-your-halloween-contact-lenses-are-illegal
Kenneth Daniels, OD, FAAO, Dipl ABO is an Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor in the Cornea and Specialty Contact lens Service and National Eye Institute Clinical Investigator at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) where he was also the Director of Contact Lens Research. He presently teaches in PCO’s Centers for International Studies. He is a Fellow in the American Academy of Optometry (FAAO). He is a graduate of Temple University and the New England College of Optometry. He has graduate training from an ophthalmology department in a Harvard affiliated health plan and the Yale – Gesell Institute of Child Development. He was the Director of Clinical Research for Allergan Pharmaceuticals and has collaborated in several research projects in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. He is a series editor for an ophthalmic text and contributing editor professional journals and has a published textbook pertaining to Contact Lenses.