Working Healthy

How Safe Is Wearing Contact Lenses in the Salon?

Professionals disagree on the safety of contact lenses in the salon, but technicians need to be aware of the proper care and potential hazards of contacts.

Contact lens wearers know how frustrating they can be at times. But some industry experts warn that wearing contacts in the salon can be dangerous as well.

Contact lenses require special care, and once you start wearing them, your eyes become more susceptible to irritation and damage than ever before. Not only must you handle and maintain your lenses carefully, but you must be aware that the environment you work in could be your eyes’ worst enemy. Dust, flying clippings, and chemicals pose a threat to your eye health and the safety of your contacts.

Nail technicians, hairstylist, and cosmetologist deal with potentially harmful chemicals and processes every day. Yet, unlike workers in many chemical industries, they are not required to meet certain safety standards, including eye protection. If you or your employees wear contact lenses, here are a few things to think about.

Many chemicals used in salons - by nail technician and by hairstylist - are designed to cause changes in skin tissue and hair or to dissolve plastics. Contacts lenses are made of plastic and can be damaged by exposure to many of these chemicals. Once a chemical gets into the plastic of a contact lens, it’s in constant contact with the sensitive tissue of your eye. Modern medicine can repair damage to tissue and organs, but it can’t give you a new pair of eyes once they’ve been permanently damage by chemicals, particles, or dust.

But a salon isn’t a laboratory, and a lot of technicians do wear contact lenses without experiencing major problems. So just how safe, or unsafe, is it to wear contact lenses in the salon? Experts disagree.

“I would never allow contact to be worn in lab or industrial areas where chemicals designed to destroy plastic would be used,” says John Meagher, a certified industrial hygienist and manager of technical and government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association. “I would not recommend that contacts be worn in the salon. If they are, you should wear splash-proof goggles.”

Dr. Lincoln L. Manzi Jr., an eye specialist in Westminster, Calif., agrees that nail technicians should wear safety goggles to keep dust particles out of their eyes. Providing goggles for your lens-wearing clients is also a good idea. While he agrees that nail technicians are at risk for chemical damage to their lenses and eyes, he does not see the situation as career-threatening. However, he explains that it is necessary for nail technicians to be more meticulous in taking care of their lenses and eyes and to be aware of potential hazards, such as dust or chemicals getting into their eyes. However, Dr. Manzi cautions that technicians must keep their hands scrupulously clean when handing their lenses.

Doug Schoon, executive director of Chemical Awareness Training Service in Newport Beach, Calif., agrees with these precautions but points out that safety goggles and glasses are designed only to block particles, not vapors.


Gas-permeable soft contact lenses are the most commonly worn type of contact lens. The lens material is very porous and actually attracts chemicals and dust.

“There is a tendency for these materials to associate chemically,” says Nellie Brown, western regional director of the Chemical Hazard Information Program (CHIP) at Cornell University. “It’s just chemical nature.

Because they are porous, soft lenses allow gases to pass through them to the surface of the eye, a function that is necessary so that the lenses are softer, more flexible, and more comfortable. But they also let chemical vapors, such as butyl acetate, toluene, and acetone, pass through to the eye as well, where they get trapped under the lens and cannot be easily cleaned away by the eye’s natural washing action.

“It’s foolish to wear contact lenses in the salon,” says Schoon. “Unless you can hermetically seal the eye, contacts are going to absorb airborne chemicals in the salon.” Schoon contends that contacts soak these chemical vapors up like sponges and hold them against your eye. Hard lenses, although they don’t allow chemicals to pass through them, can act as siphon and pull chemicals under the lens and hold them there. “Contacts love chemicals,” says Schoon.

Salon chemicals are present in salon air as vapors. These are not “fumes,” Schoon cautions, but the gaseous form of the same liquids you use in nail services. Schoon maintains that wearing a contact lens that has been used regularly in a salon is just like putting the chemicals directly into your eye. Just as you wouldn’t let a chemical that splashed into your eye remain there, Schoon believes you shouldn’t be letting it stay in your contact lenses, either.

Splashes and aerosols are also dangerous to contact lens wearers. “It’s hard to move quickly enough to clean them out efficiently,” warns Brown.

Meagher concurs. “You could lose your eyesight if you splash something into the eye, even if you remove the lens and rinse,” he adds. “If it destroys the lens, you can’t get the chemical off. It just sits there and sits there and sits there.”

Beyond damaging the lens, some of the chemicals commonly used in the salon are specially designed to cause changes in skin, Meagher points put. Nail glue is one of the most common of these “lachrymators,” which are chemicals that irritate mucus membranes and dissolve skin or make it “gummy.”

Acid and alkaline solutions, found in primers, spray activators, soap, and vinegar, can do you harm wherever they land but are especially dangerous to eyes, where they may cause chemical burns and scaring. Acids sting and burn the moment they come in contact with your eyes, and most people will rinse them out at once just to get rid of the discomfort. Alkaline solutions, on the other hand, may not irritate you at first, but they are extremely dangerous if allowed to linger in the eye. Even if your rinse your eyes thoroughly, you should see an eye specialist immediately if you splash an alkaline or acid solution into your eye.

Dust is worse for contact lens wearers than for other people. Fillings, clippings, and product particles that adhere to hands find their way into eyes, where they can irritate and scratch. No matter how much you want to, don’t rub! Rubbing can scratch the cornea or embed a minute particle in the eye. Abrasions and foreign matter can lead to infections and ulceration of the cornea. Brown suggests wearing unvented safety goggles to combat the problem.

Paula Gilmore, owner of Tips Nail & Image Center in Foster City, Calif., always wears goggles while working. “I can’t believe the amount of dust on them by the end of the day,” she says. “I worked for years without them, but now I’m used to them.”

Nancy Daniel, a hairstylist at Head to Toe on Hilton Head Island, S.C., had problems wearing contact lenses and had to give them up. She was told her doctor that she shouldn’t wear contacts in the salon because they would eventually damage her eyes. Now she wears glasses but she claims she’d go back to contacts if she could.

“Glasses take away from the whole look,” she says. “But if [wearing contacts] meant that I would damage my eyes, I would quit. Nothing’s worth going blind over.”

“While I understand that marketing themselves and their look is an important part of [nail technicians’] business,” says Brown, “I also ask them to try and hold down the vapors.

“In chemical lab setting,” she continues, “I tell people, ‘If you’re wearing a lens for the sake of vanity, then the lens has got to go. If you wear it for reasons of vision, such as wearing a lens and glasses because there is no other way to correct your vision, then wear unvented goggles and be prepared for emergencies. Let your coworkers know you are wearing them, that way, if your are unable to help yourself, they will know what to do.”

If you do get something in your eye, quick and plentiful irrigation, even with tap water, is what Dr. Manzi urges. To irrigate the eye properly, first remove your lens and wash out the eye with lots of sterile irrigating eyewash solution.

Look carefully in a mirror to see that everything is out of the eye. Inspect the eyelid, too, then inspect your lenses for damage. Keep eyewash on hand, even if you or your employees don’t wear contact lenses.

Many of the problems contact lens wearers encounter in the salon can be tied to inadequate ventilation. Brown believes that better ventilation could solve many eye irritation problems.

“Risk would be reduced,” Schoon agrees, “if nail technicians worked in an area with proper ventilation - where all vapors were captured at the source and expelled from the building and where the face was never exposed to chemical vapors.”

Although many technicians never experience a severe problem, accidents happen. Says Brown, “Knowing about health issues in your industry is important if you want to have health and longevity in your profession. It’s not fair to expect people to just stop working in their field of choice.”

For now, technicians and salon owners must evaluate the level of risk that is acceptable to them and improve working conditions. Be aware of the proper way to care for your lenses and your eyes because, as Brown notes, “The eyes are more easily damaged than the rest of our skin and a lot harder to replace.”


Is you choose to wear contact lens in the salon, take special precautions to protect your eyes, including wearing safety goggles and getting your eyes and lenses checked regularly and when problem arises.

Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling you contact lenses, even if you think your hands are clean. Be sure to clean under your nails, too.

Keep eye rising and cleaning solutions on hand. Always clean and store lenses according to the instructions.

Inspect your lenses for dirt, fibers, or rips before and after wearing them. Work in a well-lighted and well-ventilated area.

If eye irritation lingers, see an ophthalmologist or eye specialist. An optometrist or general practitioner will refer you to an M.D. eye specialist, so if you can, go to the specialist first.

If you’re not sure about wearing them, or if you’re having problem with your contact lenses, don’t wear them until you consult your doctor.


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