Cosmetic contacts pose eye dangers

PHILADELPHIA - November 24, 2010

15-year-old Brittany Alexander wanted to be like her friend, so she wanted to change her eye color with contact lenses.

Kwan Alexander, her mother, says, "I kept telling her no."

But her mother gave in, and gave her a pair she bought at a neighborhood variety store.

Brittany wore them for a few hours, then took them out for the night.

The next day -

"My eyes were hurting. But I didn't tell my mom, I just went to school," recalls Brittany.

Kwan adds, "The nurse called me, and said, 'Come get brittany. There's something wrong with her eyes.'"

Doctor Michael DellaVecchia of Wills Eye Institute says because the lenses weren't properly fit for her, they scratched Brittany's corneas, the outer, clear portion of the eyes.

"If it's fitted incorrectly, it tends to grab onto the cornea, not move when blinking, and tend to wear down the surface," says Dr. DellaVecchia, a specialist in eye emergencies.

He likens the effect to wearing poorly-fitting shoes.

"You'll wind up with blisters and infections," he says.

He says the result can be devastating.

"We're seeing very severe infections. We've had some infections which have gone on to corneal transplantations," he says.

Under federal law, ALL contact lenses are supposed to be "prescription only,'' whether they are to correct your vision or just for color.

But we bought pair after pair in and around Philadelphia for about $20, no prescription needed.

With camera rolling, we asked in every store, and were repeatedly told none was needed. In one, we were told, "these are just for color, you don't need one."

Another store worker said she was a cosmetician, so she was qualified to help sell the lenses. At this store, and several others, we were asked if we had lens cleaner, however, we weren't offered any instructions on using or cleaning the lenses.

In addition to visits, Action News also called other beauty supply and party stores. Only one told us prescriptions were required to get contact lenses, even if they weren't being used for vision correction.

Doctors used to see problems with cosmetic lenses only around Halloween, but Dr. DellaVecchia sees cases year-round, because of the popularity.

One driver for that popularity is singer Lady Gaga -

In her "Bad Romance" video, the singer's eyes have larger-than-life circular irises.

Those were computer-generated, but now, some young women are buying circular lenses online to get the same wide-eyed look. Most of the web retailers are in Asia, though they seem anxious to sell to American women, by offering free shipping to the U.S.

In addition to the sellers, there are "how to" videos posted on YouTube. The most popular one is by makeup artist Michelle Phan.

Dr. DellaVecchia noted another dangerous development - women using food dyes, in hopes of changing the color of the lenses.

"It seems to be a little toxic, and actually destroys the substance that the lens is made of," he says.

Finding out who enforces the federal law against over-the-counter contact lens sales is difficult.

They generally come under the jurisdiction of state offices handling professional medical licensing, however, when Action News asked about non-medical busineses selling them, officials weren't sure who would handle complaints or prosecute the cases.

CibaVision, one of the major lens makers we spoke with, said it does take legal action when its products are found on the black market.

Fortunately, the damage to Brittany's eyes wasn't permanent.

But her mother says it taught both of them a lesson.

Kwan Alexander says, "Your eyes is nothing to play with."

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