top of page

Greener Eyes, Part 1: Contact Lenses

I've been avoiding doing the research on my contacts for a while out of purely knowing that what I’d find would not be good.

And I was right. It’s really, really bad.

As a contact lens wearer for 40 years, I’ve been putting plastic on my eyeballs nearly every day. Severely nearsighted with astigmatism to boot, I started out wearing gas permeable lenses in 8th grade and moved over to biweekly disposable soft contacts in my 20s and never looked back. And of course, I had many pairs of glasses over the years, including my latest pair of transition lenses.

For many of those years I believed the greenwashing hype out there that my rigid lens cases, solution bottles, and blister packs were all being recycled and I was behaving responsibly in ‘doing my part’.

But guess what? I didn’t have the whole truth. I’ve continued learning and making adjustments, and now that I’ve learned even more? With that knowledge, I have some decisions to make if I want to walk the path of sustainability as is so vital to not only who I am, but in respecting the planet and its inhabitants. My Maya Angelou-inspired mantra has always been "when you know better, you do better", and this is no exception, y’all.

With that, here are some recent findings on my end about the true impact of vision products, the greenwashing that is everywhere by the manufacturers, the health warnings that are worth considering, and some ideas for making even the brownest or bluest of eyes a shade greener...

Most Contact Lenses Shed Microplastics. Many of us have now read the articles that reveal how many microplastics we are ingesting into our bodies thanks to plastic packaging, water and air pollution, and more. The majority of clothes are now made of fossil-fuels, i.e., plastic (polyester, rayon, microfiber, spandex, acrylic, elastane). People sip out of cups and water bottles and Hydroflasks made of fossil fuels as well. And if you don’t question what you’re literally putting not only on your skin but against porous surfaces like your eyes? Yep, you’re fooling yourselves. The American Chemical Society reports on the new research studies reveal the extent of microplastics from contacts going into our eyes, and how worse it gets if wearing disposables (like most do): "Lenses with shorter lifetimes showed the greatest amount of shed microplastics after this exposure. Based on their data in this small-scale study, the researchers estimate that more than 90,000 microplastic particles per year could be shed from some lenses if worn for 10 hours a day...researchers say their findings indicate that more studies in this area are urgently needed."

Most Contact Lenses Contain PFAS. The majority of disposable soft contacts are made from fluoropolymers, which are by definition PFAS. The Guardian reports that "Testing of 18 popular kinds of contact lenses found extremely high levels of organic fluorine…it is possible that the polymers turn into dangerous forms of the chemicals once in the eye or contact packaging...Chinese researchers in 2020 linked high PFAS exposure to several eye diseases.This is where government regulation (or lack thereof) plays a HUGE part in maintaining the status quo when it comes to forever chemicals. "Companies rarely disclose when they use PFAS because the federal government allows them to claim it as a trade secret.” Carnegie Mellon scientific director went on to state in the study’s overview that "If you use fluoropolymer-containing contact lenses, you are likely to become permanently contaminated. No one today can tell you that fluoropolymer exposures are safe, because no jurisdiction has been demanding the development and scrutiny of appropriate safety testing.” Mamavation, EHN’s partner in this consumer study, provides a through list of the worst-to-best (based on parts-per-million (PPM) of the toxic fluorine in each). Alcon appears to have the majority of the worst, and I was (slightly) relieved to see that my brand, Acuvue Hydraclear Oasys with UV blocking, were among the ‘best’ - with the mention of course, that NONE of the 18 contact lenses tested in their EPA-certified lab were without PFAS. So it’s a shit river no matter what, just flowing a bit more slowly.

20% of contacts are flushed, creating microplastics pollution. WTF people? It’s plastic. As Ecowatch reports, "With 45 million contact users in the U.S., the research team estimated 6-10 metric tons of plastic lenses end up in wastewater in the U.S. alone each year...The flushed lenses, which are mostly plastic, turn up at wastewater treatment plants and become part of sewage sludge that gets spread on farmland.” Basically, you flush it, it ends up being used by BigAg as ‘fertilizer’ (yes, if you didn’t know already, human shit is sprayed on your non-organic produce, folks), which earthworms eat. Birds eat these toxic worms then (not only suffering irreparable harm themselves) they poop everywhere including the water, sending these microplastics into waterways and thereby, the ocean (and its inhabitants). See how that works? So stop flushing your old lenses and put them in the garbage.

Plastic Lens Cases, Solutions & Packaging are NOT Recyclable. For us billions who were scammed for years by the plastics industry along with those eager to avoid admitting their role in the climate crisis by claiming plastics are both safe AND easily recyclable? It’s not true. Here’s the deal:

  • Not only are less than 10% of eligible plastics ever even put in recycling bins, only #1 and #2 bottles and jugs actually qualify as ‘recyclable'. And with this, I learned over a decade ago in my Master Recycler classes that, guess what, it's DOWN-cycled, meaning (unlike glass and metal) it is not infinitely recyclable. As GreenMatters explains about the processing of plastic waste, "Durability fades, microscopic pieces get shaved off, and the items made from the reprocessed material are weaker than they were when they went in...Plastic is continually downcycled until it is rendered completely useless for winds up in a landfill, where it slowly breaks down into microplastics and emits methane."

  • That’s better than nothing, right? Wrong. The Guardian reports, "Recycled plastics...often contain higher levels of chemicals such as toxic flame retardants, benzene and other carcinogens, environmental pollutants including brominated and chlorinated dioxins, and numerous endocrine disruptors that can cause changes to the body’s natural hormone levels...The science clearly shows that plastic recycling is a toxic endeavour with threats to our health and the environment all along the recycling stream."

  • Nearly ALL Contact Lenses & Solutions are Tested on Animals. While the FDA does not specify animal testing requirements for contact lens solutions, PETA has reported that "manufacturers of contact lens products are staunchly resistant to eliminating animals from their testing procedures...despite the questionable validity of animal tests and the existence of humane alternatives.” (There’s only one brand that makes cruelty-free solution which also happens to be free of several common allergens, including thimerasol, which studied due to its potential for conjunctivitis-related side effects in contact lens wearers) Same goes for actual contact lenses, with LiveKindly doing the homework to find there’s only ONE manufacturer in the world who doesn’t do animal testing.

Alright y’all, so where do we go from here? I’ve been doing some homework in this regard as well...

  • Wear your glasses more often - even part time. Ever since finding frames I really like AND getting transitions lenses on them to become insta-sunglasses? I wear my contacts a whole lot less - even in public! And because they are my vision, I take a LOT better care of them than I do with cheap drugstore sunglasses which usually end up getting squished, sat on, or otherwise FUBAR. It’s also something I really like when on my bike since when I go inside I don't have to take them off since they adjust to indoor light pretty quick. Glasses are of course, not actually glass, but we can choose plastic-free frames (lots of metal, bamboo and wood options out there…) and invest in a good pair that not only will last a long time but will allow you to re-use with a new set of lenses when/if your prescription changes. While I admit I still wear contacts, I actually am starting to go through a lot LESS of them because of this decreased use, and the first R is “Reduce”, so that’s one step in the right direction.

  • Change Contact Lens brands to a less-’sheddy’ one. Now I know a lot of us have a brand we’ve used for years, but is it just because the doc prescribed it years ago? Check that Mamavation link earlier in the post that describes the worst and best and if yours isn’t on the Best list, make the transition to a less-toxic one. Every bit helps. However, a heads up that they did NOT test all brands, so there are some smaller companies out there you might want to research.

  • Look into Silicone Hydrogel Contacts. Both Eiyan and Bausch + Lomb responded to the PFAS study reports claiming their contact lenses were PFAS-free. I looked at their sites, and Eiyan addresses it very specifically, including a copy of their recent lab verifications (although it’s reported these are not yet 3rd party backed claims), but Bausch has zero mention of PFAS anywhere (after multiple web searches to find what their contacts were made of, it's Samfilcon A which is a silicon hydrogel). Eiyan only offers a daily (that’s a LOT of non-recyclable blister packs!) while Bausch offers a monthly option, which begs the next question: is it more wasteful to throw away 96 blister packs or use up bottles of solution? I don’t know the answer to that yet…but I will be looking into both when my current box of contacts are finished up.

  • Invest in a Non-Disposable Glass Contact Lens Case. I just went onto Etsy and found two US sellers with these, one from EcoEyeCases with a silicon lid and the other from Shop Natural Minded with a pop-top. I’m trying out the latter and will let y’all know how that goes…but one precaution: Avoid buying cleaning solutions that come with a ‘free' case inside as many do, otherwise you’ve defeated the purpose.

  • Consider going from Biweekly to Monthly Disposables. It cuts the amount of waste in half…just make sure the aforementioned safety precautions (microplastics, PFAS) are taken into account.

  • Buy from Vegan Contact Lens & Solutions Companies. While they still involve plastic packaging, Clear Conscience is the only known manufacturer of cruelty-free, vegan contact lens solution that is also free of multiple known allergens, as mentioned earlier in my post. Remember, vegan is not just the ‘ingredients’ - it’s also in how the product is developed, which is why freedom from animal testing must be included - not all contacts companies are transparent about this! In addition, I just discovered DaySoft whose disposable contacts are sold in both the UK and US and have confirmed on LiveKindly that their contacts are both vegan and cruelty-free. The only thing I don’t know however is their microplastics shedding - so I’ve got a note out to the Mamavation folks to see if they have any plans to study other brands.

Let’s all do better…for ourselves, for our communities, for our planet.


bottom of page