Preservatives in saline solution?

Originally Published: November 25, 2011 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 09, 2011
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Dear Alice,

As an avid contact wearer, I use saline solution to rinse my contacts daily before each use. Recently, a friend told my that many commercial saline solutions contain preservatives, which could effect the overall health of my eye. Is this something I should be concerned about? The saline I use has always felt comfortable so I never thought it could pose a problem.

-teary eyed and tentative

Dear teary eyed and tentative,

With so many different eye drops and contact lens solutions out there, the "solution" to the question of which one is the healthiest for your eyes can be a bit…cloudy. But the short answer is, if you are not experiencing discomfort from your saline solution, it's probably not impacting the health of your eyes, assuming it is a solution that was approved by your eye doctor for use with your particular lenses. If you are not sure of this, a quick phone call to your prescribing physician may be a good idea to make sure your lenses and your solution are a safe combo.

Preservatives are used in eye drops and contact lens solutions as a way to slow the growth of bacteria in the opened bottle. Different individuals have different levels of sensitivity to preservatives. Preservatives can be found in rinsing saline solution, soaking solution, regular eye drops, and contact lens re-wetting drops. People who are sensitive preservatives may experience eye itching, burning, redness, or excessive tearyness. Usually switching to a "sensitive eyes" saline formula or a "preservative-free" one will take care of the problem. The trade-off is that preservative-free types may be more prone to contamination so it is important with these types (and really all eye solutions) to carefully abide by the expiration date and dispose of solutions by that date to avoid eye infections. If you are using preservative–free solution, consider buying a smaller bottle to avoid wasting any excess (the expiration date will come more quickly than the expiration date of a solution with preservative).

Additionally, although it may work great for gargling and for neti pots, it is not safe to use homemade saline solutions for contact lenses. Nor is it safe to use distilled water, tap water, or saliva. All of these other "lubricants" are prone to growing bacteria (especially that last one) and will cause eye irritation. Make sure to stick to a store–bought solution. After all, the eye is one of the most intricately designed and sensitive sensory instruments on the human body, so be sure to treat them with the greatest of care.

Alice