Over the Counter Reading Glasses – OK To Use Or Harmful?

As a practicing optometrist for twenty years now, one of the most common questions I am asked is “Can I use over-the-counter glasses or will they damage my eyes?”  The short answer to this question is yes (depending on one’s prescription); you can use these “drugstore” reading glasses without harming your eyes.  However, before you go out and buy a pair of these glasses for every drawer and nightstand in your house, you need to be aware of a few things.

First, a basic understanding of why people develop the need for reading glasses in the first place might be of interest.  As people approach the age of 40, they may begin to notice that their near vision is not what it was even a few years ago.  Indeed, once you enter your forties and progress into your early forties, you can expect to definitely have changes up close, requiring a spectacle (or contact lens) prescription.  (If you are near-sighted to begin with, you can simply remove your glasses at near to solve this near blur, but this is an issue for another article).

The question remains though, why do people need reading glasses around the age of forty?  This is actually the culmination of a process that starts pretty much the day you’re born. 

Our ability to focus at different distances and to go from distance to near and vice versa comes from the crystalline lens.  The crystalline lens sits behind our pupils and can change shape to accommodate focusing at various distances.  As children and even young adults, this crystalline lens is very elastic which allows for tremendous focusing ability at near.

However, over time, the ability of the crystalline lens to change shape decreases.  This is a slow, yet fairly constant change.  As this process continues with every passing year, it eventually hits a threshold point at about the age of forty, give or take a few years, where your ability to focus at the typical reading distance of about 18-20 inches is impaired.

As you can see, this process is really just another ageing process.  Look at it this way:  Needing reading glasses due to this process doesn’t mean you are old; it just means you are “old enough”.  Perhaps looking at it in this way may make it slightly less depressing.

Furthermore, everybody experiences these vision changes, regardless of sex, race, or nationality.  So rest assured that the need for a reading prescription at around forty years of age is not unusual; in fact, it is the norm.

As for the over-the-counter (OTC), or drugstore, reading glasses, feel free to use these as needed.  Keep in mind, though, that people with a big difference in prescription between the two eyes and/or high amounts of astigmatism will not do well with these glasses.   You will also need to consult your eye care professional to help you determine what power lenses to select. 

Of course you could also simply go into a store and try out a few difference powers until one that seems clear at your desired reading distance is found.  This latter choice is not recommended if, as a result, you skip routine checkups with your eye doctor.  Routine eye examinations can uncover potentially vision threatening conditions such as glaucoma and macular degeneration (to name just a couple).

Also, the optical quality of OTC glasses is often lacking.  But this cannot damage your eyes.  You may experience some discomfort and even headaches, but you will do no actual damage to your eyes.

So when you reach that “special” time in your life when you need reading glasses, don’t despair.  You are not old, just “old enough” and you are certainly not alone.  Also, feel free to use the OTC glasses, but be sure to continue having your routine eye exams.