Vampire teeth, werewolf hair, elf ears, witch’s nose, cat’s eyes… four of these are fun, safe costume accessories for your face this Halloween. And in a worst case scenario, one could leave you blind. Cosmetic and decorative contact lenses aren’t limited to Halloween costumes: they’ve been popular ways to “wear” a different eye color or freak out strangers on the subway on any day ending in Y.
But those sold through costume shops and online vendors are not approved by the FDA as prescription lenses and similar medical devices are. Contact lenses qualify as medical devices, even when not used to correct vision. In fact, sales of decorative contact lenses without a prescription violate Federal Trade Commissions regulations.
Without oversight, safety standards or quality control governing their manufacturing and sales, their popularity has led to plenty of case studies revealing how non-approved lenses can damage your eyes.
“You can safely buy contact lenses from eye doctors’ offices, online or by mail order with a valid prescription, but don’t purchase decorative contact lenses from costume shops, online stores, beauty salons, drug stores, flea markets or anywhere that doesn’t require a prescription,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns.
“Decorative lenses purchased without a prescription may not fit properly, leaving the eye more susceptible to scratches on the outer layer of the eye, or getting an ulcer (an open sore) on the cornea—the clear covering over the front of the eye,” the CDC states.
Those scratches and sores can develop into infections and even lead to vision loss, research has found. The Food and Drug Administration’s tip sheet on decorative contact lenses describes symptoms of those eye infections: redness, itchiness, watery eyes, persistent pain and decreased vision.
Eye infections are a risk with any type of contact lens, even prescription ones used to correct vision, but they are far more likely with unapproved, unregulated lenses. Even worse, you may not know the lenses are harming your eyes right away. They could be introducing bacteria or causing tiny scratches that lead to symptoms long after you remove them. One study found that 13 of 15 cosmetic contact lenses increased the amount of bacteria that clung to the contact because of the pigment in it.