Q: My niece has just started using contact lenses and she already uses makeup. Can you suggest any tips for eye safety?

A:Wearing contact lenses and makeup is completely safe as long as precautions are taken to avoid complications such as infections or contact lens damage. Perfecting the art of properly wearing contact lenses and makeup can take some time, but learning correct techniques and habits will help keep your niece's eyes clean, comfortable and healthy.

By now your eye care professional should have gone through the proper cleaning, handling and storing techniques to avoid contact lens-related infections. As easy and convenient as contact lenses are, it is important to remember that they are medical devices that require a high level of care.

Makeup + bacteria + contact lenses = eye infection

Adding makeup to the mix can bring a whole other set of complications. If makeup is expired or defective, it can harbour bacteria and micro-organisms, posing a greater risk to your niece's eye health. Makeup also contains oils and residue that can hurt the eye. If any makeup - like a chunk of mascara or an eye shadow sparkle - gets under the contact lens and the lens isn't taken out immediately and properly disinfected, it can cause corneal abrasions that can result in serious infection if not treated promptly.

Liquid makeup, such as liquid eyeliner, poses an even greater risk as it can easily transfer toxins to the eye. Many young women apply eyeliner inside the lash line - a big no-no whether you wear lenses or not. Applying makeup here can plug the eye's oil glands, causing infections or styes (a bacterial infection that affects the edge of the eyelid or eye).

Makeup selection

Avoiding contact lens-related infections can be as easy as choosing the right makeup. Certain types are not recommended with contact lenses, especially makeup products that have preservatives such as phenyl mercuric acetate and phenyl mercuric nitrate (both can cause allergic reactions in some people).

Generally, I recommend makeup that is fragrance and oil free, although your niece's best bet is to test a number of brands to see which one works for her. Also, look for labels that say "hypoallergenic," "for sensitive eyes" and "for contact lens wearers" as they generally indicate the use of chemicals that are not as harsh, minimizing the risk of allergic reactions.

Many mascaras use fibres to create the appearance of fuller lashes. These can fall into your niece's eye, which can potentially damage her lens and cause infection. She should look for fibre-free mascara and apply it to the tips of lashes only. Loose face powders and eyeshadows can also pose a risk - choose pressed powders to minimize risk from flaking products. Liquid, cream and gel eyeshadows are also suitable. Avoid frosted, eggshell or sparkly eyeshadows.

Tips and tricks

Here are some more tips for people who use both contact lenses and makeup:

  • Always wash hands before handling lenses and properly disinfect them daily.
  • Insert soft contact lenses before applying makeup. Gas-permeable (hard) lenses should be inserted after makeup is applied.
  • Remove contact lenses (hard or soft) before removing makeup.
  • To guard against infection, use a non-irritating facial cleanser and gently scrub the lash line to remove makeup and massage the eye's oil glands.
  • Replace mascara and eyeliner every six months. Regularly clean all brushes and replace eyeshadow applicators.
  • If your eye does become infected, get new contact lenses and replace all eye makeup and application brushes. Dispose of lens cases and get new ones. Avoid using makeup and contact lenses until infection has cleared. Contact your eye doctor immediately.
  • Carry a lens lubricant at all times to help remove makeup and other particles that may get on your lenses.
  • Keep in mind that there is no real difference between high- and low-end brands. Any brand of makeup can pose a risk if expired or not applied properly - proper use is critical to keeping your lenses clean and your eyes healthy.

The Expert:

Black and white picture of Dr. Barbara Caffery

Dr. Barbara Caffery is a Toronto-based optometrist who has worked in a group practice since her 1977 graduation from the New England College of Optometry. She completed a Masters of Science degree in nutrition in 1987 and a PhD programme at the University of Waterloo in 2009 upon defending her thesis, "Sjogren's Syndrome: A Clinical and Biochemical Analysis." Today she is a member of the University Health Network Sjogren's Syndrome Clinic. Dr. Caffrey spends her days doing comprehensive eye care; her areas of expertise are dry eye disease and contact lenses. She has done several clinical trials in dry eye disease and has published widely in the areas of contact lenses and dry eye and Sjogren's Syndrome.