The FDA warns that consumers risk significant eye injuries, even blindness, from "circle" contact lenses that give wearers the look of an animé cartoon, sold online without a prescription.
Of all the strange outfits and accessories Lady Gaga wore in her “Bad Romance” video, who would have guessed the look that would catch fire would be the huge animé-style eyes she flashed in the bathtub?
Lady Gaga’s wider-than-life eyes were most likely generated by a computer, but teenagers and young women nationwide have been copying them with contact lenses imported from Asia. Known as circle lenses, these are colored contacts — sometimes in weird shades such as violet and pink — that make the eyes appear larger because they cover not just the iris, as normal lenses do, but also part of the whites.
“I’ve noticed a lot of girls in my town have started to wear them a lot,” said Melody Vue, 16, of Morganton, N.C., who owns 22 pairs and wears them regularly.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Washington state extremist pays a price after unmasking by left
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- Scorching hot in Phoenix: What it’s like to work in 115 degrees
- They put up a Pride flag. A homeowners group said take it down
- Coronavirus infections could surge this fall if COVID vaccination rates lag, expert says
These lenses might be just another beauty fad if not for the fact that they are contraband and that eye doctors express grave concern over them. It is illegal in the United States to sell any contact lenses — corrective or cosmetic — without a prescription, and no major maker of contact lenses in the United States sells circle lenses.
Yet the lenses are widely available online, typically for $20 to $30 a pair, in prescription strengths and purely decorative. On message boards and in YouTube videos, young women and teenage girls have been spreading the word.
The lenses give wearers a childlike, doe-eyed appearance. The look is characteristic of Japanese animé and is popular in South Korea. Fame-seekers there called “ulzzang girls” post cute but sexy head shots of themselves online, nearly always wearing circle lenses to accentuate their eyes. (“Ulzzang” means “best face” in Korean, but it is also shorthand for “pretty.”)
Big in Asia first
Now that circle lenses have gone mainstream in Japan, Singapore and South Korea, they are turning up in U.S. high schools and on college campuses.
“In the past year, there’s been a sharp increase in interest here in the U.S.,” said Joyce Kim, a founder of Soompi.com, an Asian fan site with a forum devoted to circle lenses. “Once early adopters have adequately posted about it, discussed it and reviewed them, it’s now available to everyone.”
Kim, 31, of San Francisco, said some friends her age wear circle lenses almost every day. “It’s like wearing mascara or eyeliner,” she said.
Sites that sell contact lenses approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are supposed to verify customers’ prescriptions with their eye doctors. By contrast, circle lens websites allow customers to choose the strength of their lenses as freely as their color.
Kristin Rowland, a college senior from Shirley, N.Y., has several pairs of circle lenses, including purple ones that are prescription strength and lime green ones that she wears behind her glasses. Without them, she said, her eyes look “really tiny”; the lenses “make them look like they exist.”
Karen Riley, a spokeswoman for the FDA, was a bit surprised. When first contacted last month, she did not know what circle lenses were or the extent to which they had caught on.
Soon after, she wrote in an e-mail, “Consumers risk significant eye injuries — even blindness” when they buy contact lenses without a valid prescription or help from an eye professional.
Dr. S. Barry Eiden, an optometrist in Deerfield, Ill., who is chairman of the contact lens and cornea section of the American Optometric Association, said people selling circle lenses online “are encouraging the avoidance of professional care.” He warned that ill-fitting contact lenses could deprive the eye of oxygen and cause serious vision problems.
Nina Nguyen, 19, a Rutgers student from Bridgewater, N.J., said she was wary at first. “Our eyes are precious,” she said. “I wasn’t going to put any type of thing in my eyes.”
But after she saw how many students at Rutgers had circle lenses — and the groundswell of users online — she relented. Now she describes herself as “a circle-lens addict.”
“What made me comfortable is so many girls out there wearing them,” Nguyen said.
A makeup artist named Michelle Phan introduced many Americans to circle lenses through a video tutorial on YouTube, where she demonstrates how to get “crazy, googly Lady Gaga eyes.” Phan’s video, “Lady Gaga Bad Romance Look,” has been viewed more than 9.4 million times.
“In Asia, it’s all about the eyes in makeup,” said Phan, a Vietnamese-American blogger who is now Lancôme’s first video-makeup artist. “They like the whole innocent doll-like look, almost like animé.”
These days girls of many races are embracing the look. “Circle lenses are not just for Asian people,” said Crystal Ezeoke, 17, a second-generation Nigerian from Lewisville, Texas. In videos she posts to YouTube, her gray lenses make her eyes look an otherworldly blue.
At Lenscircle.com, based in Toronto, most customers are Americans, ages 15 to 25, who heard about circle lenses through YouTube reviewers, said Alfred Wong, 25, the site’s founder.
“A lot of people like the dolly-eyed look, because it’s cute,” he said. “It’s still an emerging trend” in America, he added, but “it’s getting more and more popular.”