Artificial Tears

If you have eyes that are irritated from dry, smoky or windy environments or from fatigue, you may turn to artificial tears. If you need to use them often, consider making an appointment with an eye care provider.


What are artificial tears?

Artificial tears are eye drops, gels or ointments that lubricate your dry eyes. You can buy artificial tear solutions without a prescription.

Artificial tear products usually work in one of two ways: they either add to the water (aqueous) part of your tears or to the fatty acid (lipid) part of your tears. Layers of mucus, water and lipids make up your tear film, which is part of your tear system, also known as the lacrimal apparatus or the lacrimal system.

What conditions do artificial tears manage?

You may use artificial tears to:

  • Treat dryness by adding moisture.
  • Reduce friction on the cornea, the “window” of your eye, by adding lubrication.
  • Soothe irritation.
  • Reduce redness and swelling.

You may need to use artificial tears occasionally because you:

  • Are in windy, smoky or dry locations.
  • Have eye strain from being tired or using a computer for long periods of time.
  • Take certain medications, such as allergy pills and some antidepressants.
  • Are getting older, because aging can affect the moisture levels in your eyes.

If your eyes seem like they’re always dry and irritated, you should contact an eye care provider so they can help you find out what’s going on and what type of treatment you might need.

How common is it to use artificial tears?

In the U.S., almost 5 million people age 50 or older have severe dry eye. About 20 million more people have dry eye issues that aren’t considered severe.

Dry eyes happen twice as often in women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) than they do among men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB).

What are some examples of artificial tear eye drops?

Artificial tear products aren’t all the same. Some of them may work by adding to the aqueous (water) component of tears. Others may work with the oily (lipid) part of tears.

Some artificial tear products have preservatives that allow for longer shelf life. However, a drawback to this type of product is that the preservative can bother your eyes. Regardless, you should discard any open artificial tear product when it’s three to four months old.

It may be better not to use certain kinds of artificial tears with preservatives if you’re wearing contact lenses. There are special products made for contact lens wearers. Check the packaging for information on use with contact lenses.

Preservative-free products often come in single-use containers. They’re small tubes that you should throw out after 24 hours.

Ask your eye care specialist to recommend a type and brand.


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Procedure Details

How do I use artificial tears?

Usually, artificial tears come in bottles or tubes, depending on whether they’re solutions, gels or ointments.

  • Before doing anything with your eyes, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly. If someone is helping you, ask them to wash their hands first.
  • Tilt your head backward, look up and pull down your lower eyelid with your finger.
  • With the other hand, position the bottle over your open eye and squeeze out the correct number of drops or gel drops. Follow the directions on the package or the directions your provider gave you.
  • Don’t touch the tip of the bottle or let it touch your eye. You want to avoid contamination.
  • Close your eye and keep it closed for a little while. You can put a finger on the part of your eye nearest to your nose to keep the medicine in your eye.
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes right after using artificial tears.
  • With thicker gels or ointments, you might have blurred vision for a varying amount of time.

How often can I use artificial tears?

Check with a provider about how often you can use artificial tears and how long you can use them continuously. If you need to use them often, you may need a provider’s help in finding out if you have a more serious condition.

If you use artificial tears that contain preservatives, you should limit their use to four to six times per day. If you need to use the products more often than that, you should use products that don’t contain preservatives.

Risks / Benefits

What are the potential benefits of using artificial tears?

Artificial tears provide relief for the itching and burning of dry eyes. Some types might help your eye tissues to heal.

Sometimes, artificial tears can help to wash out hair, dust, irritants or other substances that might be in your eye.


What are the risks or complications of using artificial tears?

Some people may find that artificial tears, especially those that contain preservatives, cause unwanted side effects, including:

  • Blurred vision: If this happens, make sure your vision clears before you do anything like drive or operate machinery.
  • Eye irritation: This can feel like burning or itching, and may make you want to rub your eyes. (Avoid rubbing your eyes, however, because it can make irritation worse or damage the surface of your eye.)
  • Allergy symptoms: These may affect more than just your eyes. Symptoms include itching, swelling, breathing difficulties and dizziness. If you have this type of severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), get medical help immediately.
  • Delaying care for eye conditions: Your eye care provider might need to postpone certain types of eye care if you recently used artificial tears.

Recovery and Outlook

How long will it take for me to feel better?

Artificial tears usually make your eyes feel better right away.


When To Call the Doctor

When should I call my healthcare provider about dry eyes and using artificial tears?

If you experience any of the following, it’s a good idea to call your provider or make an appointment to see them as soon as you can:

  • If your healthcare provider hasn’t told you to use artificial tears daily and you’re using them every day or more than is recommended.
  • Artificial tears aren’t helping your eye condition or symptoms.
  • You have a poor reaction or side effects to using artificial tears.

If you have any loss of vision or extreme reaction, especially an allergic reaction as described above, get medical help right away. If the symptoms include trouble breathing, call 911 immediately.

Additional Common Questions

Artificial tears vs. eye drops: what’s the difference?

Artificial tears are usually available over the counter (OTC) and provide or keep moisture in your eyes. Eye drops often require a prescription, but some may be available over the counter. They may contain medications like:

Can I use artificial tears if I wear contacts?

You can use some types of artificial tears with contact lenses. You may have seen packages of products called rewetting drops. In general, avoid using any artificial tears that contain preservatives with contact lenses unless you’ve spoken to your provider

Thicker products (gels and ointments) may stick to your contacts, so you should avoid wearing contacts while using gels and ointments.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Like other parts of the body, your eyes have parts that are supposed to work together for best results. It’s possible that your eyes are dry simply because you were outside in the wind or near a smoky campfire. It’s fine to pick up some eye drops to relieve occasional problems. However, if your eyes are dry and irritated on a regular basis, talk to a healthcare provider. They can check for other conditions and can provide direction on what type of artificial tear solution will best suit your needs.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 02/21/2023.

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