Soft Contacts Losing Appeal to Some Wearers
Mary Beth Loughlin wore soft contact lenses for eight years, but now she’s sick and tired of the hassle.
“When they get gunked up with protein, there’s all these different chemicals you have to use and they’re expensive,” the 24-year-old graphic designer says. “And my eyes must produce a lot of protein, because it was always a pain.”
Edith Lee, Loughlin’s co-worker, adds this complaint about the soft contacts: “When you drop or lose them, they turn into Saran Wrap.”
The two have since switched to using hard contacts--and their glasses occasionally--following a trend that has soft contact lens manufacturers concerned.
According to industry sources, an estimated 23 million people in the United States wear contact lenses, about 80% the soft variety. But at the same time, about 14 million Americans have tried and given up wearing soft contacts since they were introduced in 1971.
The reasons, though no doubt varied, revolve around a single theme. Soft contacts are harder to maintain and easier to damage than hard contacts, and the aesthetic advantage over glasses is no longer there. Glasses have become so fashionable that some people who don’t even need them are wearing them. So, 14 million people say, why put up with the hassle?
Ironically, the soft lenses are a hassle practically by design.
“Soft contacts were developed to be as much like the eye as possible, to be more comfortable and better for the user,” says Dr. Louis Wilson, professor of ophthalmology at Emory University in Atlanta. “The body takes care of the eye, but the user has to take care of the lens.”
Soft contacts are soft primarily because their plastic polymers contain a great deal of water, more than 50% in some cases. This is easier on the eye and allows for much longer wear than hard contacts.
But unfortunately, these hydrophilic (literally, “water loving”) lenses attract more than water. They also attract bacteria, dust, makeup, and most problematically, proteins.
Protein, the major building block of living tissue, is found throughout the body, including in the tears. So every time soft-contact wearers blink or their eyes water, a thin film of protein attaches itself to the lenses.
“Within a half hour of wearing them, if you look with an electron microscope, you can see a layer of protein has already built up,” Wilson says. “Within a week, they can get really gunked up.”
The situation is even worse with extended-wear permeable lenses, which can be worn for up to a month at a time because they allow oxygen to get to the eye.
Removing such deposits has been a time-consuming weekly ritual in which the contacts were soaked in an enzyme to break the chemical bond between the protein and the lens. This took several hours and had to be followed by regular cleaning and disinfection.
However, Wilson says at least one soft lens manufacturer has simplified protein removal.