The 8 Worst Habits for Your Eyes

The importance of an annual eye exam cannot be overstated. Not only does it help you keep tabs on any changes in your vision, but it’s a must for detecting the big vision thieves: glaucoma, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), all of which can cause irreparable harm before you’ve even noticed any vision loss, says Michelle Andreoli, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Northwestern Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

What might not be so obvious when it comes to the health of your eyes are the everyday habits that affect them. Here are eight of the worst habits for eyes — and what you can do to break each of them.

Bad habit 1: Smoking

Add this to the always-growing list of reasons to give up smoking for good: Cigarette smoke is more than just irritating to your eyes; research shows it also raises your risk of developing AMD, the eye disease that can blur your central vision. People over age 55 are already at risk for the condition, but a large review of studies published in Clinical Interventions in Aging shows that smokers are at a twofold to fourfold risk of AMD, as compared to never-smokers.

​​“Smoking reduces the effectiveness of antioxidants and may deplete these levels in the macula,” the small area at the center of the retina that’s necessary to see things in front of you, explains Ashley Brissette, M.D., an ophthalmologist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. “Cigarette smoke also reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the tiny blood vessels that supply the eye, leading to vision damage.” That’s true for those who smoke only occasionally or are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, Brissette adds. The good news? The same review of studies shows that kicking the habit not only reduces the risk of AMD, but after 20 years, the risk of developing the condition is the same as it is for nonsmokers.

Bad habit 2: Staring at your smartphone

Your eyes pay a price directly and indirectly when you stare at that tiny screen — or, for that matter, your computer screen or TV — without giving them a break. According to the American Optometric Association, using any of your digital devices continuously for two hours is enough to bring about digital eye strain.

“The two biggest concerns with onscreen habits boil down to chronic dry eye symptoms and disruption of natural sleep patterns,” Andreoli says. “We’re supposed to blink once every 4 seconds, and in front of the computer, we blink about once every 8 to 10 seconds. That [difference] may sound insignificant, but blinking is what keeps our eyes lubricated. [If] we aren’t lubricating our eyes sufficiently, we develop dry eye symptoms, and that leads to eye strain.” ​​Then there’s the toll too much screen time takes on our sleep patterns. “The brightness of the screen and the activity tells our brain it’s daytime, so we have a tendency not to get appropriately tired,” Andreoli says.

Her recommendation: Practice the 20-20-20 rule. Throughout the day, take a 20-second screen break every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away. And while you’re in the habit-changing mode, turn off your phone and put the laptop away in the hours leading up to bedtime. If you like to play, say, Wordle or return emails late at night, be sure to dim the screen’s brightness. You can schedule this to happen automatically using the Night Shift setting on an iPhone or Notification Shade on an Android. ​

Bad habit 3: Not wearing sunglasses

In the same way that ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can do a number on your skin, it can also wreak havoc with your vision. Specifically, UV rays can damage the eye’s surface tissues, the cornea and lens. And over time, that damage can lead to cataracts, AMD, and cancers of the eye.

“You can also develop a sunburn on the eyes called photokeratitis, which can be extremely painful,” Brissette says. To help prevent all of the above, wear sunglasses — and not just during the summer but every day of the year, even when it’s cloudy. ​​“Sunglasses protect the eyes in a few ways,” Brissette adds. “It’s hard to apply sunscreen close to the eyes, so sunglasses can act as a physical barrier, blocking UV rays from the eyelids and skin around the eyes. Also, the lenses of the sunglasses have UV protection.” To fully protect your eyes, check the tag or sticker to make sure the glasses provide 100 percent UV protection. “Some labels say, ‘UV absorption up to 400 nm,’ which is the same as 100 percent UV protection,” Brissette says. ​​

Worth noting: Even if you wear contact lenses with UV-blocking technology, you should still wear sunglasses outdoors. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, these contacts protect only the part of the eye they cover, leaving the outside of the eye exposed to harmful radiation. Your eyes get the most protection when you wear sunglasses, especially wraparound styles.

Bad habit 4: Sleeping in your contact lenses

Sure, contacts have gotten more user-friendly, but that doesn’t mean you can simply put them in and forget about them. “The biggest issue is the risk of infection, which can cause permanent scarring of the cornea and loss of vision,” Brissette says. “Bacteria and other debris get trapped between the contact lens and the surface of the cornea, so leaving them in too long or past their expiration [puts you at] high risk for developing an infection.”

About 1 in 3 contact lens wearers plead guilty to sleeping or napping in their lenses, according to research in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In doing so, they’re upping the risk for contact lens–related eye infections by six- to eightfold.

“They’ve come a long way in the last few decades, but the safety profile of contacts is dependent on not sleeping in them, swimming in them or showering in them — ever,” Andreoli says. “I suggest daily lenses for most of my patients — put them in in the morning and throw them away at night — because the risk for infection with those types of lenses is very low. With some of the longer-wear lenses, patients have a knack for losing track of how long they’ve worn them. That can cause trouble over time.” ​​

Bad habit 5: Rubbing your eyes

There’s no real harm in occasionally rubbing your eyes, but if you’re aggressive about it, you run the risk of damaging your cornea, the clear, dome-shaped front surface of your eye. “Some uncommon diseases of the cornea are associated with eye rubbing,” Andreoli says. Those include keratoconus, a condition that occurs when your cornea thins out and begins to bulge outward into a cone shape. As a result, your vision is blurry and distorted.

A study published recently in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that the severity of dry eye disease was higher in patients who are chronic eye rubbers.

If you’re looking for quick relief from redness, irritation, dryness and grittiness in the eye, it’s OK to rub your eyes. “The occasional rub will milk some tears out of the tear gland, but try not to be overly aggressive or frequent,” Andreoli adds. Better yet, reach for some lubricating eye drops or place a hot washcloth over your eyes. ​​

​​If you find that you’re habitually rubbing your eyes — and one way to get a handle on just how often you’re rubbing is to keep track for a week — try rubbing the outer edge of the eye socket instead of your eyes as a way to minimize the consequences. If that doesn’t work, then seeing a therapist may help.

Bad habit 6: Sleeping with your makeup on

Researchers have known for a while that wearing eye makeup increases your risk of inflammation and affects the quality of your tears. It also plays a role in the development and/or exacerbation of dry eye disease, according to research published in 2022 in the journal Cureus. That’s especially true if you make a habit of falling asleep with your makeup on.

Every once in a great while, it’s OK if you don’t take your makeup off before you fall asleep. Make a habit of it, however, and you raise your risk of eye infection, most notably in the form of a sty, a painful lump that grows from the base of your eyelash or under the eyelid. Also important: how you take off your eye makeup.

“Oil-based remover can exacerbate some dry eye symptoms because they deposit a ton of oil in the tears,” Andreoli says. “If patients are starting to notice this, abandon eye makeup remover and use very mild face soap instead.”

Bad habit 7: Heavy drinking

The surprise isn’t that drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol — up to one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is bad for your health. The surprise is how bad heavy drinking can be for your eyes. “Some of the most damaging effects on vision are from extremely high levels of alcohol or chronic alcohol abuse,” Brissette says. “Toxic blood alcohol levels can permanently damage the optic nerve and vision centers.”

In fact, a review of studies published in 2021 in the Journal of Ophthalmic & Vision Research found that chronic alcohol consumption raises the risk for cataracts, AMD, diabetic retinopathy and various types of optic neuropathy, among other conditions.

Social drinkers, take note: None of the above applies to you. But that doesn’t mean you’re totally in the clear. Even occasional alcohol use contributes to dry eye disease, Brissette says.

Bad habit 8: Skimping on nutrients

Somewhere along the way, carrots became the poster vegetable for good eye health. While it’s true that your eyes need vitamin A — it helps nourish the cornea and is critical for the retina to function — the vitamin A-rich carrot is far from the only eye-friendly veggie.

In the landmark Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and the follow-up AREDS2, researchers tested whether taking nutritional supplements — specifically, lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamins C and E, copper and zinc — could prevent or slow the progression of AMD and cataracts. The researchers found that taking the vitamins had no effect on cataracts, but it did help AMD patients reduce their risk of progressing from intermediate to advanced AMD by about 25 percent. The formulation tested in the study is now commonly sold over the counter as the AREDS2 formula.

Brissette recommends taking the supplement if you’ve been diagnosed with AMD. Otherwise, she suggests following the Mediterranean diet for overall eye health. “That’s what we have the best evidence for in terms of being beneficial for eye health — specifically, foods rich in vitamins A, C, and E, lutein, zeaxanthin, and omegas,” she says. “It’s always better to get our nutrients from whole food sources rather than from supplements, if possible. If you’ve been diagnosed with macular degeneration, then taking a supplement, such as AREDS2, can help to slow progression and are additionally recommended.”

SOURCE: Kimberly Goad, AARP