Ask The Expert – Should I Surf With Contact Lenses?

“I recently started wearing contact lenses to correct my nearsighted vision. I have to wear them when I snowboard, or basically whenever I need to see where I’m going. Should I wear them when I go surfing or do you think that will hurt my eyes?”
-Nate, Seattle, Washington

Well, it certainly helps to see when you’re shredding, Nate. But you definitely don’t want to damage your eyes in the process. There’s been a fair amount of debate regarding this topic. That’s why we consulted expert medical advice. And for the final verdict, you should check with a physician, too, as this column accepts no responsibility for the health of your eyes.

While most eye-care practitioners advise against wearing contact lenses in the ocean, many patients do anyway.
A study of 61 contact lens wearing surfers, ages seventeen to sixty-three, reported that they surfed an average of six hours per week, or 309 hours per year. Using an average of 309 surfing hours, our data shows that this “average” surfer would lose about one contact lens every 2.7 years and have one episode of general discomfort every 1.7 years. This same surfer would experience a contact lens induced abrasion while surfing once every eighteen years and succumb to an eye infection once every 29 years. An eye problem severe enough to seek out medical attention would occur once every 60 years. Our 61 surfers were in the water while wearing contact lenses for a total of 837 years, and there was not one report of vision loss.
That said, surfers who wear contact lenses while surfing must be aware of the various signs and symptoms that may precede a devastating eye problem, as well as basic knowledge to prevent such occurrences from ever arising-for example, getting sand caught between your lens and eyeball. It’s important to see an eye doctor immediately if there is any pain, redness, or decreased vision.
Contact lenses must be able to move freely on the eye before removal and proper disinfection should be performed before reinserting the contaminated lenses. A one-day throw-away lens is a good option for surfers, because the lenses are tossed after getting out of the water. Upon removal, the patient should also rinse eyes with a saline solution or artificial tears to help remove any contaminants remaining on the surface of the eye.
Surfing with contact lenses does appear to have a low risk of vision loss. However, further research should be performed. So ultimately, we are not advising anyone to wear contact lenses in the ocean due to the risk, however small, of someone losing their sight due to an infection or an abrasion.

Bio: Kelsey Williams, O.D., is a practicing Optometrist in Oceanside, California. While studying at Southern California College of Optometry, she conducted research on the effects of wearing contact lenses while surfing.

*Research by Brett Simon, O.D., Kelsey Williams, O.D., and William Petersen, O.D.