Is the Contact Lens Expiration Date Important?

A contact lens expiration date is marked on every individual lens package. Chances are high that you rarely look at that date, for a few reasons: it's just one of a bunch of numbers on a small package, it's not clear why it matters, and generally the dates are so far into the future that regular wearers use all of their lenses long before the date. But while the reasons behind it might not be clear, obeying the expiration date is an important part of safely wearing contact lenses.

What the Contact Lens Expiration Date Means

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates contact lenses and other medical devices, requires rigorous safety and efficacy testing on such products. Contact lens manufacturers are required to demonstrate, through tests, that their lenses with solution blister packs will remain stable and safe for a certain period of time, for example, perhaps five years. Essentially what it means is that the lenses, and the solution that contains them, have only been tested for that period of time, which is then used to set the expiration date to stamp on each package.

The Dangers of Expired Lenses

Beyond those expiration dates, the manufacturer cannot guarantee that the lenses are safe to wear. What can happen to the lenses after the expiration date?

The most serious concern is that poorly sealed packaging could allow bacterial and fungal contamination into the solution. These were the two things tested for in a study published in The South African Optometrist about the safety of expired lenses. In this preliminary study, the researchers did find some contamination in expired lens packs, but they were unable to make any broad claims due to a very small sample size (their stated goal was more to spark further study than to answer the question authoritatively).

The Huffington Post posed the question of expired lens safety to eye doctors representing the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Optometric Association. The doctors confirmed that you should definitely not use expired lenses. The solution containing the lenses can go bad, they explained-specifically, it can become more acidic or more alkaline (basic). With an unstable pH (acidity), "the lens, when the solution expires, can cause infection and become very uncomfortable."

If a contact lens has survived the long shelf life before its marked expiration date, it has probably received some abuse-perhaps from being left in the bottom of a bag or crammed into a car glovebox. This means that there is a good chance that the packaging has been compromised, allowing contamination to enter.

Bacteria, fungi, and amoebae can cause serious eye infections that can lead to blindness. That risk, however small it may be, should be enough of a reason to heed the contact lens expiration date.

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