Eyelash Mites Are Way More Common Than You Realize
They can lead to eye issues like styes and chronic dry eye.
This is probably the last thing you need to hear today, but there's a decent chance that you have parasites camping out in some of the hair follicles on your face. These parasites—called Demodex mites—are surprisingly common. Like, literally everyone might have them.
ICYDK, mites are invertebrates with eight legs. The Demodex mite is a parasite that likes to live in or near humans' hair follicles and feed on their host's oils and skin cells. They're often referred to as eyelash mites, but also commonly live around the cheeks, nose, chin, forehead, temples, and eyebrows.
One study published in the Archives of Medical Science found that 40 percent of people have Demodex mites hanging out on their eyelashes, as seen via microscope. Another small North Carolina State University study found that mites were only visible (via microscope) on 14 percent of the 29 people studied—but that every single participant over age 18 tested positively for Demodex DNA on their facial skin, meaning 100 percent of the participants appeared to host at least one species. In fact, "the ubiquity of mites on cadavers might indicate they are universally present on living, adult humans but missed by current sampling methods," wrote the researchers in the study.
Almost everyone has Demodex mites living on them, agrees Joseph Allen, O.D., an optometrist and VSP Network doctor in Buffalo, Minnesota. "A lot of people have these and don't have symptoms, but they often do exacerbate other problems." They can cause similar symptoms to seasonal allergies: redness, itching, and tearing. If not treated, over time that inflammation can lead to chronic dry eye disease and styes, says Allen. (Related: Why Your Eyes Are Dry and Irritated and How to Find Relief)
Each mite is microscopic—so, no, you can't see them—but an infestation can yield a crusty, yellow buildup that is visible to the naked eye. "Once they eat enough oil, they actually regurgitate the oil along with their innards and the egg that they produce if it's a female," says Allen. "So when people have a lot of mites living on their lashes, we see it as this buildup that's actually dead mites that have exploded and puked up all the stuff that they've already eaten." Graphic, we know.
Eyelash mites are contagious, both through direct and indirect contact, says Allen. So you might pick some up simply by rubbing your eyes after shaking hands with someone who's just rubbed theirs. That said, there are ways to keep them in check and avoid an overgrowth situation.
How you cleanse your eyelids is key: "I've actually seen people get worse from coconut oil, usually because people put it on their eyelashes and then they don't clean it off well enough," says Allen. He recommends going with a store-bought foaming cleanser or wipe instead that's labeled for use on eyes, since they're formulated to act as detergents and easier to rinse off.
And clean your sheets! This woman had over 100 mites living in her eyelashes after not washing her pillowcase for five years. If you notice symptoms, best to visit an eye doctor for treatment.
That said, even if you're super diligent about keeping your eyes clean, you probably won't keep eyelash mites away completely—but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Is it bad to kill off these mites? That's a question we don't really know the answer to at this point," says Allen. "There are theories that we’re perhaps showering or cleaning ourselves too much because there's kind of this symbiosis of living with microorganisms at the same time." Yep, it's possible that mites can provide a benefit to humans by ingesting certain bacteria and organisms. (Here's more about your skin microbiome and why it matters.)
So if you're thoroughly grossed out at this point, rest assured that when kept under control, Demodex mites are probably NBD, and may even be helpful.