I have dry eyes. What should I look for when selecting artificial tears?

Answers from Dennis Robertson, M.D.

Artificial tears are eyedrops used to lubricate dry eyes and help maintain moisture on the outer surface of your eyes. Such eyedrops may be used to treat dry eyes that result from aging, certain medications, a medical condition, eye surgery or environmental factors, such as smoky or windy conditions.

Artificial tears are available without a prescription. No single brand works best for every form of dry eyes. You may need to try several different brands before you find one that works best for you. It's best to avoid eyedrops aimed at reducing redness, as they can cause eye irritation when used for a long time.

Besides lubricating your eyes, some artificial tears contain electrolytes. These additives may promote healing of the surface of the eyes. Artificial tears may also contain thickening agents, which keep the solution on the surface of your eyes longer.

There are two categories of artificial tears:

  • Eyedrops with preservatives. This type often comes in multidose bottles and contains chemicals (preservatives) that discourage growth of bacteria once the bottle has been opened. The preservatives may irritate your eyes, especially if you have moderate or severe dry eyes.
  • Preservative-free eyedrops. This type has fewer additives and is generally recommended if you apply artificial tears more than four times a day, or if you have moderate or severe dry eyes. Preservative-free eyedrops may come in single-dose vials.

Artificial tears are also available as nonprescription gels and gel inserts.

If you still don't have relief after trying various products, the next step might be to try one or more artificial tear ointments. These can temporarily cause blurred vision, so you might prefer to apply the ointment just before bedtime.

If you haven't experienced some relief with these efforts, make an appointment with an eye doctor (ophthalmologist or optometrist), who will offer other treatments.

Feb. 11, 2016