Brian Spittle, OD
July 10, 2013

As is the case with everything in our lives, technology has had a dramatic effect on contact lenses.  In the early days of contacts, you had one choice.  Hard lenses were hardly a choice, though.  If you wanted to be free from glasses, your only hope was a piece of fiberglass that felt terrible.  Not only did it feel bad, but it was also unhealthy.  The stereotypes of these lenses persist to this day!

Finally some brilliant chemists in Europe created what would eventually become soft contacts.  Unlike hard lenses, we all know how comfortable soft lenses can be.  When they were first introduced in the 1970’s, they, like their hard cousins, were unhealthy. 

Both types of lenses prevented oxygen from reaching the front of the eye.  This lack of oxygen led to all sorts of calamities—including conjunctivitis, infections, ulcers, and blindness.  Anyone remember having to boil their contact lenses?

From the 1970’s through the 1990’s, there were very few lens options.  Sure, there were a few brands, but the technology in those lenses was very similar.  Doctors were also handicapped by the relatively few prescriptions available.  For many patients, they were one size fits all or none. 

If your vision was blurry or the lenses were dry, you were lucky to have one other lens to try.  If you were blessed to be able to wear the lenses, oh my stars were they expensive.  You received one right lens and one left lens in exchange for a few hundred dollars.  If the lens tore or you lost it, you had to buy another.  It was such a perilous proposition that most offices sold insurance for contact lenses!

In the late 1990’s a new type of contact lens was introduced.  These new soft lenses were similar to their old-technology cousins, but with the added benefit of silicone.  Silicone allows oxygen to pass through the contact lens. Or, as the marketing gurus suggest, allows the contact lens to “breathe.” 

Adding silicone to the lenses presented other benefits, too, leading to healthier lenses. These lenses were the technological equivalent of going from a flip phone to a smartphone.

Since the turn of the century, contact lenses have gone through several other technological jumps.  Each new generation of lens adds a new level of choices for the consumer.  Today there are probably a dozen or more lens choices for nearly every eye. 

Full stop!  Seriously—you have a ton of lens choices and you probably have no idea they’re out there.  That is good and bad.  Most individuals have no idea which lens is best for them, but thankfully they have an awesome optometrist with judgment they can trust.

Today’s choices break down along these lines: How often you throw the contacts away, if they are clear or color, and whether you want to see far away or need a little power boost for reading, too. 

Replacing your lenses is arguably the most important factor in lens hygiene.  Sure, you can clean them every night with a multipurpose cleaning solution, but the reality is the lens is no longer sterile.  Once you open an individual contact lens package, you need to think of it as a Band-Aid.  It is immediately contaminated.  Saving it for later no longer makes sense.  The more often you replace it, the healthier the situation.  The most common replacement (throw away) schedules are monthly, every two weeks, or every day.

For the old-school wearers who think that throwing lenses away every day is wasteful, trim those sideburns and walk with me.  Daily disposable lenses are healthier and more convenient.

The point is that technology is always changing.  If you are in the same lens you were in ten years ago, or if you tried daily disposables and couldn’t wear them back in the day, it may be time for a change.  The next time you’re due to see your optometrist, ask the simple question, “What would you recommend if you were me?” 

I can almost guarantee you’ll end up giving your eyes what they’re asking for by providing them with a fresh, new pair of contacts every day.  They’ll thank you.

Dr. Brian Spittle can be found at The Eye Place Optometry near Richmond, VA. Brian studied biology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, with his graduate studies at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Alabama.