Use our Optician finder to get in touch with your nearest SPECS network opticians to arrange a contact lens trial.
This section provides a snapshot into the world of contact lenses, with some facts and stats about the market, the different types available, who can wear them, plus some all-important tips for healthy wear and care...
Contact lens facts and stats
Thinking about wearing contact lenses? Well, you’re not the only one…
According to data provided by the Association of Contact Lens Manufacturers (ACLM), the number of people wearing contact lenses in the UK and Ireland has risen steadily from 1.6 million in 1992 to 3.5 million in 2014. This equates to about nine per cent of adults aged between 15 and 64 years of age now enjoying the benefits of contact lens wear.
The most popular lens choice, with 1.6 million wearers, is the frequent replacement contact lens, while 1.5 million people wear daily disposable contact lenses, which are worn once then thrown away. In 2014, the UK and Ireland contact lens and care product industry was worth £226m, made up of the sale of more than 600 million contact lenses including: daily disposables (59 per cent); soft frequent replacement lenses (36 per cent); traditional soft lenses (one per cent); and rigid lenses (four per cent).
In Europe, the number of soft contact lens wearers grew from 17 million in 2013 to 17.6 million in 2014. The UK market is the largest in Europe, accounting for 22 per cent of sales, and it grew by an average of 3.6 per cent in 2014. With continuing investment in product research and development, to make contact lenses even more healthy and comfortable to wear, the market looks set to continue growing as more and more people choose to wear them either instead of glasses, or as well as them.
Types of contact lenses
While we haven’t ditched our specs en masse just yet, a growing proportion of people are opting for contact lenses as an additional form of vision correction.
While contact lenses bring myriad lifestyle benefits, such as the joys of specs-free sports and nights out, the lenses themselves are also getting more and more healthier for the eye and comfortable to wear thanks to advances in research and technology. So what are the different contact lens types, and who are they best suited to?
Soft contact lenses
The two main types of contact lens are soft lenses made of water-containing material, and less flexible rigid gas permeable (RGP) lenses.
Sometimes called hydrophilic or hydrogel contact lenses, soft contact lenses have a flexible structure making them very comfortable to wear. Mostly they are larger than RGPs, covering the coloured parts of the eye (the iris and cornea), and are ideal to correct just about every sight condition from myopia (short-sight) to presbyopia, where the ageing eye can no longer focus at all distances.
Soft contact lenses are the most popular type fitted today, and are often described by their replacement frequency or wearing schedule, which may be daily, two-weekly, monthly and even three or six-monthly. There are also some that may be worn for up to 30 days of extended (or continuous) wear.
The most commonly fitted soft lenses in the UK are daily disposables, which come in a wide variety of materials, fittings, powers and designs. Soft lenses incorporate water, much like a sponge, and must be kept in contact lens solution to prevent them from drying out, unless they are daily wear in which case they must be binned at the end of the day. Silicone hydrogels allow more oxygen to pass through to the cornea than previous soft lens materials and are the most widely prescribed soft lenses.
Toric contact lenses to correct a misshaped cornea (a condition called astigmatism), and bifocal and multifocal lenses with different zones to correct near and far vision simultaneously, are all widely available in soft materials. And if you fancy changing the colour or appearance of your eyes then there are coloured and special-effect soft lenses, which are also available without a prescription known as zero-powered or ‘plano’ cosmetic lenses.
RGP contact lenses
Gas permeable or rigid gas permeable (RGP) contact lenses have been available for longer than soft contact lenses, and many improvements have been made over this time to allow more oxygen to pass through them. They can be more suitable for people with a misshaped cornea, called astigmatism, or a condition called keratoconus, a progressive disease that involves the thinning and steepening (or ‘bulging’) of some of the cornea.
Scleral and semi-scleral lenses, which fit onto the sclera (the white of the eye), can be used to treat diseased and damaged eyes. They are larger than regular lenses, are made of gas permeable materials and are sometimes used for other medical indications, such as severe dry eye.
RGPs may take a little longer to get used to than soft lenses but regular wearers find them comfortable, and they are more durable so are usually replaced every six to 12 months.
Contact lenses for astigmatism (toric lenses), bifocal and multifocal lenses are all available in RGP materials too. The lenses are normally used for daily wear but also for a technique called orthokeratology, or ortho-k (also known as corneal re-shaping or overnight vision correction). Ortho-k is the use of specially designed RGP lenses to alter the shape of the cornea in order to reduce or correct low to moderate levels of myopia.
Providing the best of both worlds – crisp vision and comfortable wear – are ‘hybrid’ RGP lenses, which have a soft periphery with a gas permeable centre. These specialist lenses may be particularly suitable for those with sensitive eyes, and for people with keratoconus.
Remember: one size doesn’t fit all and your first port of call when contemplating contact lenses is always your registered eyecare practitioner.
Are contact lenses for me?
With so many different types of contact lenses now available, almost everyone can benefit from contact lens wear whatever their age, occupation and visual requirements.
Advances in lens technology and design, as well as in cleaning and storage solutions, means contact lens wear can be a simple, convenient and healthy affair for those who follow the advice of their registered eyecare practitioner. New materials and moisturising agents are helping to keep eyes feeling fresh and hydrated for longer, and reducing the risk of infection.
As always the best place to start is by making an appointment with your local optician who can talk to you about your options and help you choose the right lens type, fit and vision, as well as provide valuable advice and guidance on wearing and caring for your lenses at home or whilst travelling.
Most people with allergies can successfully wear contact lenses. With the right choice of lenses, and where necessary with appropriate medication, all but the most severely affected can continue to wear their lenses. Daily disposable soft lenses have also been shown to be effective for those suffering from seasonal allergies such as hay fever. Contact lenses can be worn successfully even in challenging environments, and can be helpful in alleviating dryness.
Age is little barrier to contact lens wear these days, at either end of the spectrum. With the correct professional guidance and parental support, children can be very successful contact lens wearers and benefit enormously from specs-free time whether on the sports pitch or in the playground. Additionally, there is emerging evidence that ortho-k contact lenses can slow down the progression of myopia (short-sightedness) in children. If you are ‘of a certain age’ and wearing reading glasses, then bifocal or multifocal contact lenses can provide different lens powers for distance and near vision.
Contact lenses also offer many advantages for sports enthusiasts because they provide all-round, natural vision, are more stable than spectacles and are not affected by rain, fog or reflections. They allow protective eyewear or sunglasses to be worn and means a low risk of eye damage or injury. Soft contact lenses are generally the best choice for active sports as these tend to move less on the eye compared to RGPs. For outdoor sports, your contact lenses can also incorporate protection from ultraviolet (UV) light.
Contact lens designs and materials are constantly evolving – so if you’ve tried them in the past without success, it might be worth asking your eyecare practitioner about the latest developments to see what your current options are. Many local opticians will offer a trial so you can take the lenses away with you to see how you get on with them. You’ll need to learn how to look after your lenses, put them on the eye and remove them, yourself. Once you’ve worn the lenses, you'll need to have the health of your eyes checked and the fitting completed.
Remember: only registered optometrists, contact lens opticians and medical practitioners can fit contact lenses.
Top tips for health contact lens wear
Here are some useful tips on contact lens wear and care to help you get the best out of your contact lenses, courtesy of the British Contact Lens Association:
- Have regular check-ups as advised by your practitioner
- Always wash and dry your hands prior to handling your lenses
- Always rub, rinse and store your lenses in the recommended solution before and after each use (except daily disposable lenses, which should be discarded after each wear)
- Always clean the lens case with solution, wipe with a clean tissue then air-dry after each use by placing the case and lids face down on a tissue
- Always apply the same lens first to avoid mixing them up
- Check the lens is not inside out before applying
- Check the lens is not damaged before applying
- Handle carefully to avoid damaging the lens
- Apply your lenses before putting on make-up
- Remove lenses then remove make-up
- Keep your eyes closed when using hairspray or other aerosols
- Replace your lens case at least monthly
- Discard lenses and solutions that are past their expiry date
- Wear only the lenses specified by your contact lens practitioner
- Stick strictly to the recommended wearing schedule and replacement frequency
- Make sure you have an adequate supply of replacement lenses or a spare pair
- Have an up-to-date pair of spectacles for when you need to remove your lenses
Ask yourself these three questions, each time you wear your lenses:
- Do my eyes feel good with my lenses? _ no discomfort
Do my eyes look good? _ no redness
Do I see well? _ no unusual blurring with either eye
- If the answer to any of these questions is no, leave your lenses off and consult your contact lens practitioner immediately, who will advise you on what to do next
- Use tap water, or any other water, on your lenses or lens case
- Wet your lenses with saliva
- Put a lens on the eye if it falls on the floor or other surface, without cleaning and storing again
- Apply a lens if it is dirty, dusty or damaged
- Continue to wear your lenses if your eyes don’t feel good, look good, or see well
- Re-use or top up solution – discard and replace with fresh solution each time lenses are stored
- Decant solution into smaller containers
- Wear lenses left in the case for more than seven days without cleaning and storing them in fresh solution
- Sleep in your lenses unless specifically advised to by your practitioner
- Wear any lens overnight if you are unwell
- Use your lenses for swimming, hot tubs or water sports, unless wearing tight-fitting goggles
- Wear your lenses when showering unless you keep your eyes firmly closed
- Switch the solution you use except on the advice of your practitioner
- Use any eye drops without advice from your contact lens practitioner
- Share contact lenses or wear any lenses not specified by your practitioner
Remember: if you have any questions about your contact lenses you should always consult your eyecare practitioner for advice.
Use our Optician finder to get in touch with your nearest SPECS network opticians to arrange a contact lens trial.
Article written for SPECS network by Nicky Collinson