What makes contact lens cost?

By: Dr. Don Miller

There are several contributors to the final price of contact lenses. Cost to fabricate is one, and no longer the largest. Costs of packaging, distribution, and advertising rank with production costs. And there is markup from wholesale placed by the retail or discount merchant. No longer are most contact lenses sold by the examining eye doctor (physician), although many spectacles and contacts are now sold by chain-store optometrists.

By the way, current prices are lower in inflation adjusted dollars than in the past, partly due to advances in manufacturing methods and materials, but largely due to the breaking of a de facto monopoly. A U.S. Government Law, called the “Fairness To Contact Lens Consumers”, went into effect on February 4th, 2004. No longer can an eye care professional deny you a copy of your prescription, nor prevent you from purchasing via mail or internet.

Best practice seems to be for users to get their contacts fitted by a local professional, with follow up examination, then brand-name refills according to price and convenience. It is medically foolish to skip the local fitting.

The first practical contact lenses were made by glass blowers (late 19th century), and they covered the entire visible surface (scleral lens). When they eventually were offered for sale, prices were understandably high. Only actors, very vain people, and persons with environmental demands could put up with either the price or the discomfort.

Development of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA or Perspex/Plexiglas) in the 1930s, permitted mass production of scleral lenses. These rigid lenses were made on lathes, eventually automated, and prices declined.

Corneal contacts were initially made by similar technology, but the rigid lens now floated over only the center part of the eye. More people could accept invasion by these foreign objects, but time of wear was limited even after gradually increased usage times.

Wear time for contacts has been increased by evolutions in both manufacturing technologies and creation of new materials. First, rigid lenses were perforated by tiny holes, to increase the reach of oxygen to the cornea. The newer materials led to "rigid gas permeable" (RGP) contacts. Then came non rigid lenses of several types, including gas permeable materials. The biggest advance was the development of "Hydrophilic gels for biological use" published in 1959 by Czech chemists Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim. This soon resulted in sale of soft lenses in Europe, then about a decade later in the U.S.A.

Improvements continue in materials for oxygen permeability and moisture control, so some lenses are now rated for up to 3 months wear. Competition among several major manufacturers has helped lower wholesale prices. Since 2004, competition from mail order and internet discounters has further helped contact users.

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For more articles about safe and enjoyable use of contact lenses and spectacles, see 3daycontacts.com/articlelist.htm by Dr. Don Miller.

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