Sophia Money-Coutts takes a close look at contact lenses and the risks of buying over-the-counter fashion designs.
Lady Gaga is controversial for many reasons, a peculiar wardrobe, outrageous music videos and a penchant for carrying a pet tea-cup among them. But she's landed herself in further trouble recently over her choice of eyewear. No, not those smoking cigarette glasses, but the bug-eyed contact lenses she wears in her Bad Romance video which seem to dramatically enlarge her pupils. In fact, so big are the black discs that they not only cover the iris but part of the whites of her eyes too.
Although these cartoonish lenses are already popular in places like Japan where there's a big anime following, Gaga's patronage has reportedly now encouraged teenagers across the world to seek them out. But there's a problem, because in many countries, such as the US and Britain, there are strict laws governing the sale of contact lenses. Over-the-counter sales of lenses in both countries are illegal and those looking for a pair - coloured or otherwise - need to have an optician's prescription.
To dodge this requirement, hundreds of fashion-conscious youths are taking to the internet and buying novelty lenses they find there. A quick, cursory Google searchbrings up various websites touting such lenses for pocket-money prices. Coloured, with smiley faces or stars printed on them, in the shape of cats' eyes or in the colour of your national flag - they are certainly inventive. Simply add to basket, pop in your credit card details and they're yours. No prescription needed.
But so alarming has this trend become that a warning was issued last month by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the world's largest association of eye physicians. "New decorative contact lenses called circle lenses are an emerging and potentially dangerous trend," it began ominously. "Inflammation and pain can occur from improperly fitted, over-the-counter lenses and lead to serious problems including corneal abrasions and blinding infections."
Ian Dunning, the contact lens category manager for the British optician chain Specsavers, agrees with the warning, although he says there is no problem in theory with fashion lenses "as long as they are stored, fitted and handled correctly" and come from "a reputable optician". Dr Elias Jarade, a specialist ophthalmologist at the Dubai Mall Medical Centre, is more severe, especially when it comes to the possibility of an infection from such lenses.
"There's no 'let's wait for tomorrow to see'," he says of chance eye-infections. "I don't want them to come the second day and for it to be too late. Whenever the problem starts, practically it is very hard to control, very hard to stop, very hard to treat." Blinding, he adds, can occur quickly. A proper procedure needs to be followed for the prescription of lenses, he says, whether fashion or the more usual optical lens. "There is no best contact lens for everyone; each eye has its own contact lens fit."
The curvature of the eye has to be checked, as well as the eye's level of dryness, which is often a problem in the Gulf in particular because we live in a sandy and air-conditioned climate. And there is a specific procedure that needs to be followed when it comes to caring for lenses too. Jarade explains that when prescribing optical lenses to young children, about 10 or 11 years old, he will talk things through with the parents as well as his patient.
"You have to check how he is wearing the contact lens, is he washing his hands, is he cleaning them carefully, is he soaking them with solution, that he doesn't swim with the contact lens and that he never, ever sleeps with them." This is the sort of handling that might not occur to people buying cheap coloured lenses online. "It doesn't matter how old or young he or she is," says Jarade. "Consulting their eye doctors first is a must."
But it is possible to get contact lenses without an examination in the UAE, as demonstrated in a number of the optician stores that sit, ironically, just outside the medical centre in Dubai Mall. In one shop, a range of coloured lenses sits on the counter, all encased in little plastic pots and lined up on a rack. "What is the most popular colour?" I ask the shop assistant, peering at those available: lavender, turquoise, grey and Lady Gaga-style black among them.
"Blue," she replies after thinking for a second, before adding, "They're Dh120 only ma'am." I'll pass, thanks.