The Best Eye Drops for Dry Eyes
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Sick of dry, red, painful eyes? Here are some possible root causes and three types of over-the-counter drops for dry eyes that doctors recommend.
When your eyes get dry
You might want to take a few blinks before reading this—especially if you have dry eye syndrome, a chronic condition that occurs when you don’t have enough tears to provide adequate lubrication for your peepers.
Thanks to seasonal weather changes, excessive screen time, and other causes, it’s common to experience dry eyes. In fact, a study published in 2017 in the American Journal of Ophthalmology reports that more than 16 million American adults over the age of 18 have chronic dry eyes.
What are the symptoms of dry eyes?
The most obvious symptom of dry eyes is a general discomfort that feels almost like a mild burning or the feeling that something is in the eye, notes Benjamin Bert, MD, an ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
“For some, there can actually be pain, like someone sticking a needle into the eye for a split second that then resolves. The more severe pains can lead to aching around the eyes or a headache.”
In more severe cases, vision can be affected. “When the eyes are very dry, little cracks form on the surface of the cornea—the clear portion at the front of the eye—and create a sort of frosted window as opposed to a clear view,” says Dr. Bert. “Not having the visual axis completely clear can cause additional glare or sensitivity to light. At night, these changes also cause additional glare or halos around lights.”
It’s also possible to experience fatigue as a result of dry eyes, since it feels like your eyes are constantly wanting to close on their own.
What causes dry eyes?
Many people stare at screens—from laptops to smartphones to TVs—throughout the day. These are visually intensive tasks that actually decrease our blink rate, explains Dr. Bert.
“It’s akin to having many repeated small staring contests throughout the course of the day,” he says. “Gradually, this increases ocular surface dryness, even if you don’t have an underlying dry eye disease, where people feel the symptoms of dry eye by the end of the day.”
Age also plays a role, as well as gender. An estimated 3.2 million women over the age of 50 experience dry eyes on a regular basis, compared to 1.68 million men, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. There may be a hormonal component, notes Dr. Bert, which may explain why dry eye affects postmenopausal women more than men.
Underlying systemic diseases—like Sjogren’s syndrome and graft-versus-host disease—may also contribute to dry eyes. Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune condition that affects the production of tears and saliva, and graft-versus-host disease can occur in transplant patients.
What to do about dry eyes?
One of the first lines of defense against dry eyes is lubricating eye drops (aka artificial tears).
“Artificial tear eye drops typically contain ingredients that help coat the eye with a film of lubricant to minimize friction between the eyelid and cornea, prevents tears from evaporating from the eyes, and protects the eyes from sources of irritation,” explains Jonah Berman, optometrist and medical expert for LensDirect.
“Typical active ingredients in these products include various concentrations of mineral oil, carboxymethylcellulose, glycerin, propylene glycol, polyethylene glycol, polyvinylpyrrolidone (povidone), hypromellose, sodium hyaluronate, polyvinyl alcohol, and polysorbate,” he says.
Because each brand features a different combination of these ingredients, it can be difficult to know which will work best for your dry eyes without trying it first. (You can also try one of these 6 home remedies for dry eyes.)
What to look for in eye drops
They should be formulated for dry eyes
Looking for eye drops labeled “lubricating drops,” “moisturizing drops,” or “artificial tears,” suggests Christopher Zoumalan, MD, an oculoplastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, California. Other eye drops, such as those formulated for reducing redness or reducing itching won’t effectively help treat your dry eyes.
They should be free of preservatives
Preservatives help enhance the shelf life of certain products, including eye drops. However, they can irritate the eye long after a drop is instilled, notes Berman.
“While unpreserved eye drops tend to be clearly marked as such on their packaging, labeling of eye drops with biodegradable preservatives might not be so obvious,” she says. If you’re not sure which eye drops contain preservatives, Berman recommends asking your store’s pharmacist for help.
Here are some over-the counter eye drop brands that doctors recommend.
Refresh Optive Lubricant Eye Drops
Dr. Zoumalan often recommends this brand of lubricating eye drops because they are preservative-free. “They contain two active ingredients, carboxymethylcellulose sodium and glycerin, which are gentle enough for sensitive eyes and use after LASIK procedures,” he says. “I like that they come in single-use packaging to eliminate the risk of contamination, and they can be used as often as needed.” (Here’s why you might have dry eyes at night or waking up in the morning.)
Refresh Celluvisc Lubricant Eye Gel
For those who need soothing in addition to extra moisture, Dr. Zoumalan suggests this eye gel which is thicker than most other products on the market.
“These preservative-free drops can provide longer-lasting relief for dry and sensitive eyes and can be used as often as needed,” he says. “They contain carboxymethylcellulose sodium as the main lubricating ingredient. And they come in sterile, single-use packaging, as well.”
Thera Tears Dry Eye Therapy
Berman is a fan of this biodegradable brand that uses a unique preserving ingredient that turns into pure oxygen and water once it comes into contact with the eyes. The drops help restore the eye’s natural moisture balance and replicate healthy tears to reduce the feelings of dryness.
- American Journal of Ophthalmology: Prevalence of Diagnosed Dry Eye Disease in the United States Among Adults Aged 18 Years and Older
- Benjamin Bert, MD, ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California
- Christopher Zoumalan, MD FACS, oculoplastic surgeon based in Beverly Hills, California
- American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Eye Health Statistics"
- NHS: "Sjögren's syndrome"
- Jonah Berman, OD, FAAO, optometrist and medical expert for LensDirect