Earlier this year Shaina Borowicz, 13, switched from glasses to colored contacts. "I don't think I look good in glasses," she says. Naturally brown-eyed, Borowicz (right) each day chooses from her collection of five colors: two shades of blue, two shades of green and honey. When she wears her favorites, Acuvue's Sapphire Blue, girls--and guys--tell her, "I love your eyes." And at her private school, where kids are required to wear khakis and polo shirts, colored eyes are a permissible fashion statement.
No self-conscious child wants to hide behind a pair of Coke-bottle glasses. With advances in contact-lens technology, fewer have to. Half of the 13- to 17-year-olds who need vision correction wear contacts, up from one quarter 10 years ago. And the trend isn't limited to older teens. Thirteen percent of vision-corrected kids under 13 now wear contacts, says Peter J. Valenti, vice president of marketing for Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, maker of Acuvue.
How do you decide if they're right for your child? Eye doctors say motivated, conscientious kids as young as 8 can wear contacts--if they're responsible enough to care for them properly and nimble-fingered enough to insert them. "He has to be somebody who you don't have to keep telling, 'Brush your teeth, floss your teeth'," says Case Western Reserve University ophthalmologist Thomas Steinemann. Parents should make sure kids replace lenses on schedule, remove contacts at night and clean them with commercial sterile saline solutions. "If the lenses fall out, they shouldn't be licking them and putting them back in," says Los Angeles ophthalmologist Robert Maloney.
The next step is choosing a lens. In general, doctors advise against extended-wear lenses (worn 24 hours a day) for kids, because they increase the risk of infection, and children who are squeamish about touching their eyes or who have moderate to severe allergies may not be good candidates.
Soft lenses: Most pro athletes--and kids involved in dusty sports like softball or horseback riding--wear soft lenses because they're less likely to fall out or get particles stuck behind them. Doctors particularly like daily disposables for kids because they require no cleaning; kids simply pop in a fresh pair every day. Soft lenses can be pricey--$160 for a year's supply of two-week clear contacts and $1 a day for daily disposables. Colored soft contacts cost $250 to $300 per year.
Rigid (gas permeable) lenses: Gas permeable lenses are smaller than soft lenses, reduce the risk of infection and give the clearest vision, particularly to people with more severe astigmatism. "You get a more crisp optical image going through a rigid lens," says David Seibel, chair of the American Optometric Association's contact lens and cornea section. But they're harder to get used to than soft lenses. Still, if your child doesn't mind the adjustment period, gas permeables are healthier for your eyes because they allow in more oxygen, let tears flow behind the lens and, if properly fit, may slightly slow the progression of nearsightedness. Gas permeables, which can last two years, cost less than soft contacts (about $100 per lens)--assuming you don't lose them.
In the end, parents need to weigh the costs versus the benefits. Contacts give better peripheral vision, and in many cases, improve quality of life for glasses wearers. Spencer Thompson, 14, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., started using daily disposables a year ago--once he got used to touching his eye--and loves no longer needing to adjust glasses on his nose. With contacts, he says, "you're not conscious of being visually impaired all the time."