5 Essential Over-the-Counter Eye Remedies

There are lots to choose from. We asked an America’s Best optometrist which ones are worth keeping in your medicine cabinet — and which ones aren’t.

Adult male buying medicine in pharmacy

Stand in the eye care aisle of your local drugstore, and you’ll likely feel overwhelmed. With so many eye drops, scrubs, and washes to choose from, it’s tough to distinguish the valuable products from the ones that aren’t worth the money. 

To help you make these buying decisions with confidence, Peter Harb, O.D., an optometrist with America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Tampa, Florida, breaks down which over-the-counter (OTC) eye care products to consider adding to your shopping cart and which ones to leave on the shelf. 

Be aware that in the fall of 2023, several OTC eye drops were recalled due to a risk of serious eye infection. Some of those products are no longer sold, but some may still be on the shelves. You can check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recall list here

Have questions about your eye health or vision? Your America’s Best optometrist is here to help. Find an exam time that fits your schedule! 

OTC Remedies for Eyelids 

Red, itchy eyelids are a common eye condition known as blepharitis. It isn’t contagious, but it is uncomfortable. If your eyelids feel irritated, it’s likely that oil, dead skin cells, or makeup have accumulated on them.  

Eyelid wipes, scrubs, and sprays from OCuSOFT can help you gently remove the debris. Ideally, you should use these products when your face is moist, such as after washing your face or at the end of your shower. You can also go the DIY route and clean your eyelids with warm water and a gentle cleanser, such as baby shampoo, according to the National Eye Institute. 

Recommended reading: 5 Eyelid Issues That Can Interfere With Your Vision 

OTC Remedies for Styes 

These painful red bumps form along the eyelid edge when oil glands become clogged and infected. A stye can also occur inside your eyelid. You probably already have everything you need at home to care for a stye without buying anything at the drugstore.  

Apply a wet, warm washcloth to the affected eyelid for 5 to 10 minutes, several times a day. Use your fingertips to gently massage your eyelids in a kneading, circular motion, which can break down the hardened oil in the stye and help it drain through the oil gland’s natural opening. 

You can also purchase a Bruder eye mask to help the stye go away more quickly. These commercially made compresses can be warmed in the microwave. You can find them at America’s Best locations. Another option: Thermalon Dry Eye Compress, which works in a similar way. 

Lubricating eye drops can also help relieve any burning or itching that may accompany styes, even if they don’t target the actual infection. 

Note: If your stye hasn’t dissolved within two weeks, make an appointment with your America’s Best optometrist. It may require professional treatment. 

Recommended reading: Warm vs. Cold Compresses: When Should You Use Them? 

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OTC Remedies for Eye Allergies 

Allergens such as peanuts, pollen, and animal dander can trigger certain cells in your eyes to release histamine. That’s a chemical produced by the immune system to protect the body from foreign invaders. This can cause symptoms such as redness, puffiness, tearing, and itchiness. 

In response, some people use redness-relieving drops that contain the decongestant tetrahydrozoline. But that’s a mistake, says Dr. Harb, as these products won’t address the underlying problem.  

“They temporarily shrink the blood vessels, making your eyes appear less red,” says Dr. Harb. “We don’t recommend that as a long-term solution. Instead, it’s better to treat the underlying reason for your red eyes.” Plus, when overused, this type of eye drop can cause rebound redness, he says, which can make red eyes look even worse. 

Instead, look for OTC allergy drops that contain an antihistamine. Antihistamines are drugs that treat allergies. Brands Dr. Harb trusts include Pataday, Systane Zaditor, and Lastacaft. Lastacaft is designed for once-a-day use; Zaditor can be used twice daily; and Pataday has formulations that can be used once or twice a day.  

Recommended reading: 5 Ways to Help You Avoid Rebound Redness and Find Relief 

OTC Remedies for Dry Eyes 

Dry eye syndrome occurs when tears don’t thoroughly lubricate the eyes. You may experience a stinging or burning sensation. Sometimes this happens because your body doesn’t produce enough tears. That could be due to hormonal changes, an autoimmune disease, medications, or allergies.  

Other times, conditions inside your home may cause dry eyes. Maybe there’s a fan or air-conditioning vent that blows air into your eyes. Or you stare at your computer monitor for so long that your blink rate has slowed. Blinking triggers tear glands to release fluid and helps spread the tear film on the ocular surface (surface of the eye) — so when you blink less, your eyes can dry out, says Dr. Harb. 

Artificial tears and lubricating drops can help alleviate the problem. Here are the features you should look for: 

  • Choose brand-name products. Dr. Harb recommends Systane, Refresh, and Blink because he says their ingredients tend to be better tolerated than generic or private-label (aka store brands) products. (Generics sometimes have unlisted preservatives that can cause irritation.) 
  • Look for the letters “PF” on the bottle. That stands for “preservative-free.” These drops are less likely to irritate your eyes. Products that contain preservatives can provide relief in the short term, but they can worsen dryness in the long run when overused, says Dr. Harb. 
  • Match the product to your eye issue. If your eyes are dry from too much screen time, consider Refresh Digital. If you wear contact lenses, Refresh Contacts or Blink Contacts may be a better option. To hydrate your eyes while you sleep, look for gel drops or an ointment such as Refresh Optive Gel Drops or Refresh P.M. 

OTC Eye Protection 

One of the most effective eye products available is one that you might not even think about: sunglasses.  

By protecting your eyes from harmful ultraviolet rays, sunglasses may help prevent cataracts, macular degeneration, and cancers of the eyelid, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Look for sunglasses that provide 99% to 100% protection against both UVA and UVB rays. It may say “UV 400” on the label. 

Medically reviewed by Peter Harb, O.D. 

See our sources: 
Histamines: National Institutes of Health 
Eyelid massage and styes: American Academy of Ophthalmology 
Irritated eyelids: National Eye Institute 
UV light and eye health: National Eye Institute