What are artificial tears?

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Artificial tears are products that help restore fluid to dry eyes. Almost all are sold over the counter. There are many formulas with a range of active ingredients. Most are eyedrops, but some are gels or ointments. Different formulas are available to treat different types of dry eye problems, or to treat milder or more severe dry eyes. Talk to your eye doctor about which formula is best for you, and how often you should use it.

One common ingredient in dry eye medications is cellulose. This includes carboxyl methylcellulose and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, also called hypromellose. Cellulose eyedrops add volume to the watery part of tears. Brand names include TheraTears, Refresh Tears or Refresh Plus, GenTeal, Isopto Tears, and Natural Balance Tears.

Other common artificial tear ingredients include glycerin, polyvinyl alcohol, propylene glycol, and polyethylene glycol. These are sometimes called lipids. They are lubricants that reduce friction, help tears spread across the eye surface, and help the tear film last longer between blinks. Products that contain one or more of these ingredients include Blink Tears, Nu-Tears, Refresh Optive, Systane, Systane Balance, and Systane Ultra.

Gels and ointments for dry eye are thicker. They usually contain mineral oil and petrolatum, and often lanolin. They are made to stay in the eye longer to provide more benefits. But they can also cause blurred vision or residue on the eyelids or lashes. So they are often applied before bedtime. Brand names include GenTeal PM, Refresh Lacri-Lube, Soothe Night Time, Systane Nighttime, and Tears Again Night & Day.

Note that some artificial tear and lubricant products are not recommended for people who wear contact lenses. 

This answer was adapted from Sharecare's award-winning AskMD app. Start a consultation now to find out what's causing your symptoms, learn how to manage a condition, or find a doctor.

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