Changing Perspectives

Create An Eye-Catching Transformation With Costume Lenses

by Cassandria Warr // October - November - December 2023

Are you considering altering your eyes to help create the ultimate creepy Halloween costume? Or are you a cosplay fan looking to fully embrace a character with crazy, vividly colored eyes? If so, costume contact lenses may be on your radar. But before you decide to transform your look with these decorative lenses, read on to ensure you do so safely.

Costume contact lenses are soft lenses designed to change your eye’s appearance. Ideal for occasions like Halloween or costume play, they can alter its color, pupil shape, and even impart cartoon or film character effects. These lenses cater to both individuals who wear glasses or contact lenses regularly, and those who don’t, as they are available with and without vision correction.

It’s crucial to note that all contact lenses, including non-prescription colored or special effects lenses, are classified as medical devices by the FDA. As such, they require a valid prescription from a licensed eye care practitioner. Since 2005, selling contact lenses without a valid prescription has been illegal in the United States.

Are costume lenses safe?

Costume lenses are safe to wear, but only when they are properly prescribed, cared for, and purchased from a legitimate source. Wearing them without a prescription may seem harmless, but beware … they can severely damage your eyes, potentially leading to permanent blindness. Unfortunately, many costume contact lenses are sold without a doctor’s prescription. When used incorrectly, all types of contact lenses can increase the risk of eye infections.

Contact lenses, including costume ones, are not “one size fits all.” If not properly sized, they can cause corneal abrasions, leading to pain, redness, and light sensitivity. An abrasion may result in a corneal ulcer, which, if not treated properly, can scar over, permanently affecting your vision. In severe cases, the cornea may become so damaged that a corneal transplant is needed in order to restore vision.

Additionally, some costume lenses may impede oxygen flow to the eye, as the paints and pigments used to add color result in thicker, less breathable material. Furthermore, a study discovered that chemicals used to color over-the-counter tinted contact lenses include chlorine and other harmful substances. These chemicals, known to be toxic to human tissue, can seep into your eye, possibly leading to vision loss. Lenses that are FDA-approved only use non-toxic tints for lens coloring. It should also be noted that research published in the professional journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science revealed that those who wear cosmetic contact lenses faced a more than 16 times greater risk of developing an eye infection than their counterparts who wear standard prescribed corrective lenses.

Safely wear costume contact lenses with these tips:
– Get an eye exam from a licensed eye care professional such as an ophthalmologist who will measure each eye and talk to you about proper contact lens care.
– Obtain a valid prescription that includes the brand name, lens measurements, and expiration date.
– Purchase colored contact lenses from a retailer that requires a prescription.
– Adhere to contact lens care instructions for proper cleaning, disinfecting, and usage.
– Never share lenses with others.
– Get follow-up exams as directed by your eye care provider.

If you experience redness, swelling, excessive discharge, pain, or discomfort while wearing contact lenses, remove them immediately and seek prompt medical attention from an eye care provider. Eye infections can become serious very quickly and sometimes the damage is not reversible.

How do they work?

Costume contact lenses come in a wide variety of dramatic designs and colors. They are opaque to completely mask your natural eye color, with a clear center over the pupil to allow you to see. Some only cover the iris (the colored part of the eye), while others can extend to the sclera (the white part) to change not only its color but also the eye’s appearance. Depending on the lens maker, these can be tinted or hand-painted, often requiring a customized order.

Black sclera contact lenses, white lenses, wild eyes, cat eyes. Whichever you choose, there’s a huge array of costume lenses to add the ultimate finishing touch to your Halloween ensemble … including circle lenses, also called “big eye” lenses, a relatively recent phenomenon. Inspired by doe-eyed anime characters, they make your eyes appear larger than normal, producing a doll-like look.

A Bit of History

Current trends in costume or novelty contact lenses are inspired by movies and TV shows. For instance, have you ever seen The Witcher? Most of the TV show’s characters who flaunt different colored eyes, such as the Witcher himself, are wearing costume lenses. A number of vampire TV shows and movies also use costume lenses to create a more frightening appearance for their protagonists. Even Professor Hooch from Harry Potter wore costume lenses so her eyes would look more like those of a hawk.

Costume contact lenses aren’t a recent fad, however. Optometrist Morton Greenspoon was a pioneer of theatrical lenses, providing special effects contact lenses to the film industry starting back in the 1950s. Known as an “optometrist to the stars,” Dr. Greenspoon “edited” Elvis Presley’s baby blues to brown for the movie Flaming Star, simply with the use of theatrical lenses. And who can forget Michael Jackson’s wolf eyes in the classic Thriller music video? We have Dr. Greenspoon to thank for that famous image. He earned an Academy Award nomination for his contributions to Bram Stoker’s Dracula; received a movie credit for his work on The Lost Boys; and worked on a multitude of movies and television shows throughout his career, including The Ten Commandments, which featured the first mirrored contact lenses in 1967.

But you don’t have to walk the red carpet to create such imagery. With the array of costume lenses available today, you too can get into character. Their cost varies significantly, depending on how they are made, and what designs are featured on them. For instance, a hand-painted lens is going to cost substantially more than a conventional-colored one.

Protect yourself

As I discussed previously, decorative contact lenses sold without a prescription can cause serious eye infections, impaired vision, and even blindness. If you’re considering wearing these types of lenses, it’s imperative that you protect yourself from illegal ones. In October 2016, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency announced that ICE, the FDA, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) combined efforts to conduct several hundred seizures throughout America, totaling approximately 100,000 pairs of counterfeit, illegal, and unapproved contact lenses. The enforcement actions were conducted under the FDA-led initiative dubbed Operation Double Vision, an ongoing effort to protect the health and safety of the American public from illegal contact lenses. Testing of confiscated illegal lenses revealed many had high levels of bacteria that could cause significant eye infections. Also, the coloring of some decorative contact lenses was made of lead-based materials that could leach directly into the eye. The agency urges consumers that anyone interested in wearing any type of contact lenses should visit an eye doctor, obtain a prescription, and purchase them from a licensed provider.

Costume contact lenses can offer an enchanting, eerie, or sassy twist to your Halloween festivities, allowing you to step into the shoes – or rather, eyes – of your favorite characters. Whether you’re aiming to transform into a mystical creature, a bewitching vampire, or a captivating anime character, they can provide the perfect finishing touch to your fun, festive, or frightening ensemble. With the right precautions in place, you can create a mesmerizing and memorable look while keeping your eyes safe and healthy.

Cassandria Warr

Developmental optometrist with McPherson Family Eye Care in Wake Forest.