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The Scary Health Risks of Colored Halloween Contacts

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Photo: Alexander Egizarov / Getty Images

Halloween is the hands-down best holiday for beauty gurus, fashionistas, and anyone who really just wants to go balls-to-the-wall with a whole lot of ~look~ for a night.  (Speaking of: These 10 Halloween Costumes Let You Wear Workout Clothes) That often means horror movie–level makeup FX, stick-on vampire teeth, fake blood, and—the pièce de résistance—creepy AF colored Halloween contacts that turn your peepers blood red, ghoulish green, deathly black, or ghostly white.

You've probably wondered what that fake bullet hole or blue body paint will do to your skin (hi, breakouts). But have you ever wondered what those cat-eye contacts are doing to your eyes? If you're getting them anywhere except from your eye doctor, the answer is: not good things.

News flash: It's actually illegal to buy or sell decorative contact lenses without a prescription, says Arian Fartash, O.D. (aka the @glamoptometrist), a VSP Vision Care network doctor. 

"Contacts are considered a medical device, and you wouldn't want to go anywhere to buy a medical device without it being screened or properly administered," says Dr. Fartash. "You want to go to a licensed eye care practitioner and get fitted for them as well as get a prescription for them."

The Risks of Halloween Contacts

Great news: If you get a pair that's been fitted to your eye and prescription, you should be A-OK to wear a pair of Halloween contacts. However, if you don't, you're risking a series of eye health issues.

"The scary part—and the worst of the worst—is that you could go blind," says Dr. Fartash. "You can get different infections because either they fit poorly and are rubbing against your eye or they're expired, and you're more prone to the infections and the bugs and bacteria that are on the contact lenses. As for less severe side effects, you can contract pink eye (conjunctivitis), get scratches, ulcers, or sores on the front of the eye, and you can even wind up with decreased vision." (This story of a Detroit teen losing her vision from wearing Halloween contacts should be all the incentive you need to listen.)

Both the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued warnings against them. They're warning that using counterfeit contacts and unapproved decorative lenses illegally sold at retail outlets and online can indeed cause eye infections, pinkeye, and impaired vision. As of 2016, ICE, FDA, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had even confiscated about 100,000 pairs of counterfeit, illegal, and unapproved contact lenses in an ongoing initiative called, ahem, Operation Double Vision. (No laughing, you guys—this is serious.)

National studies conducted for optometrists found that 11 percent of consumers have worn decorative contact lenses, but the majority of those individuals purchased them without a prescription, according to ICE. Investigations into these illicit lenses have found that they may contain high levels of bacteria from unsanitary packaging, shipping, and storage conditions, as well as toxins like lead, which can be used in the coloring on decorative lenses and will leach directly into your eyes, according to ICE. (Not scared yet? Just read this story about a woman who had a contact stuck in her eye for 28 years.)

How to Wear Halloween Contacts Safely

If you're dead set (no pun intended) on spookifying your eyes for the holiday, don't grab lenses from a random Halloween store or—even worse—a random site on the internet. Instead, hit up your eye doctor, get a prescription, and purchase them from a licensed provider. (Or maybe just try a smoky eye look instead.) 

Then follow these guidelines from Dr. Fartash for playing it safe: 

  1. Clean and store them properly—the same way you would with regular lenses. Wash your hands before and after, use fresh solution and a clean case, and make sure you're not making these contact lens mistakes.
  2. You really, really shouldn't sleep in them. "Because of the coloring, these types of lenses are a lot thicker, so oxygen is not going to get into the eye as much as regular lenses," says Dr. Fartash. "That means you're more prone to infections and irritating your eye."
  3. Don't swap with a friend. You wouldn't share regular lenses—so why should decorative ones be any different?
  4. Keep them for three or four weeks tops. You can keep them around for this year's circuit of Halloween parties, but definitely don't think you can hold onto them for next year. "The lenses are not made to last a long time," says Dr. Fartash. "They're plastic, so they'll degrade a little bit. Your doctor can tell you the life expectancy of the specific lens you buy."

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