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Are Over-the-Counter Eye Drops Safe?

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A bottle of eye drops on its side with the cap off

Red, irritated, or dry eyes can reduce your ability to focus and affect your quality of life. Your eyes need comfort to get your work done for the day, and you don’t need to visit your eye doctor to achieve this.

Many use over-the-counter eye drops for temporary relief, but are these safe to use? Learn more about over-the-counter eye drops and how safe they are. 

What Are Over-the-Counter Eye Drops? 

Over-the-counter eye drops are a saline-based solution used to provide moisture for your eyes. Many relieve eye redness, but the overall use is for temporary relief of dry and irritated eyes. Besides lubricating your eye’s surface, some eye drops can promote healing, work to slow tear evaporation, or provide other benefits. 

Your optometrist can prescribe eye drops for specific treatments, but anyone can buy over-the-counter eye drops. Many eye drops brands exist, some with more specific uses, but overall, there are two types of over-the-counter eye drops. 

Types of Eye Drops 

Over-the-counter eye drops have many different uses. Whether it’s for digital eye strain, dry eye, or another reason, eye drops can help. It may take time to find the best brand for you, but they all seek to relieve discomfort and keep your eyes moist.

No matter what you’re using your eye drops for, there are two options to choose from: eye drops with preservatives and preservative-free eye drops. 

Eye Drops with Preservatives 

Preservatives help to prevent the growth of bacteria in an eye drop bottle. Because bacteria is unlikely to grow, you’ll usually find eye drops with preservatives in multi-use bottles. 

You can use these eye drops for a long time, but the preservatives inside may irritate your eyes. Many recommend people who need eye drops multiple times per day to avoid eye drops with preservatives. 

Preservative-Free Eye Drops 

Preservative-free eye drops have fewer additives than eye drops with preservatives. There is less chance of irritation, making them helpful for people needing eye drops multiple times per day. These eye drops may come in single-dose vials because they cannot last long after opening. 

While there is a minor difference between the types of eye drops you can get, eye drops typically have a mixture of ingredients to mimic real tears. With the different ingredients present in eye drops, are they safe to use? 

Woman applying over the counter eye drops

Are Over-the-Counter Eye Drops Safe to Use? 

The American Academy of Ophthalmology says over-the-counter eye drops are safe to use as often as you need, but only if the eye drops don’t have added preservatives. There are no ingredients present in eye drops unsafe for use, but the added preservatives may irritate your eyes

The main concern with eye drops is long-term use. If you have a multi-use bottle, keeping your eye drops sterile is important. Keep track of how many times you’re applying eye drops if the bottle has preservatives. 

If you’re planning to use eye drops, you don’t have to be overly concerned, but apply the following advice:

Watch for Preservatives 

While preservatives can help your eye drops last longer, many people find the additives can irritate their eyes. The preservatives present can cause poor production and maintenance of the tear film

A study found several negative symptoms connected to the preservatives found in eye drops. These symptoms were present during long-term use. The chemical benzalkonium chloride (BAK), present in eye drop preservatives, has many effects of long-term use, such as: 

  • Dry eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Itchy eyelids
  • Burning & stinging sensations 
  • Discomfort when administering eye drops 
  • Foreign body sensation

Long-term eye drops use can provide more irritation than relief for your eyes. If you’re using eye drops more than 4 times per day, optometrists don’t recommend using eye drops with preservatives. 

Avoid Contamination 

You need to ensure your eye drops stay sterile if you’re using a multi-use bottle. Check to make sure the bottle you buy has an intact seal.

Once you’ve bought your eye drops, don’t let the applicator touch your eye’s surface or anything else, like your eyelid. The drops should be sterile when you’re applying them. With proper usage, eye drops can provide safe moisture for your irritated eyes. 

Keep Your Eyes Moisturized 

Eye drops are safe to use as often as you need if they have no preservatives, but you should be cautious when using them. Speak with your optometrist about using over-the-counter eye drops, but follow these general tips: 

  • Make sure the bottle’s seal is intact during the purchase
  • Ask your doctor about how to effectively & safely use eye drops
  • Don’t let the applicator touch your eye’s surface or anything else. 
  • Only use eye drops as directed by your optometrist or the label on the bottle
  • Don’t use eye drops past the expiry date 

Eye drops can help keep your eye moist and protected, but they require cautious long-term use. If you’re unsure about using eye drops, speak with your optometrist about your concerns. They can discuss the long-term effects of eye drops and recommend any possible alternatives.

Written by Benjamin Teller

Dr. Teller earned his doctorate in optometry from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in 1996 and has been helping local residents see clearly ever since. After graduation, Dr. Teller completed an internship with the Hopewell Valley Eye Associates, as well as several externships with the National Naval Medical Center and Katzen Eye Group.

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