Artificial Tears for Dry Eye Relief

How to choose the best one for your needs

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Artificial tears are meant to help keep your eyes healthy when your own eyes aren't producing enough tears. Your eye health professional may recommend them for dry eye symptoms that arise from several conditions, including computer eye strain, medication use, and the aging process.

While it's impossible for over-the-counter artificial tear brands to substitute perfectly for natural tears, many are formulated to provide at least some benefits that are similar to real tears.

This article explains different types of these formulas and how they work. It includes information about some artificial tear brands, as well as basic guidelines on how to apply artificial tears to your eyes.

closeup of eye drop
 Jrgen Hopf / EyeEm / Getty Images

Purpose of Artificial Tears

Your tears play an important role in keeping you healthy. Tears keep the surface of your eyes clean and moist and help protect your eyes from debris and bacteria.

Although they may appear to be nothing more than water, your tears are actually quite complex. They are composed of:

  • Water
  • Carbohydrates
  • Lipids
  • Electrolytes
  • Vitamins
  • Lysozymes (enzymes that kill bacteria and viruses)
  • Lactoferrin (proteins that prevent or slow bacterial growth)
  • Binding proteins and vitamins

A model of the tear film that scientists have adopted is a basic three-layer film that consists of a mucus layer, water layer, and a lipid or oily layer. Manufacturers of artificial tears try to simulate the natural tear film or at least one of the three layers to improve where natural tears are lacking.

Some artificial tears are thin like water and some are thick, almost like a gel. Most artificial tears contain hydrogels or particles that work to increase the moisture in your eyes for a longer period of time.

Different types of artificial tears may seem to work better for your eyes than others. For example, brands of artificial tears that contain more hydrogels will work to increase eye moisture over longer periods of time. Preservative-free options may be better if you use eye drops more than four times a day.

Types of Artificial Tears

Artificial tear formulas vary depending on the product and its purpose. Not all types offer benefits for all people, so it's important to know the differences and read labels.

Preservative vs. Preservative-Free

Some artificial tears contain preservatives and some don't. While preservatives will not cause harm to most of us, people with severe dry eye syndrome can have a toxic or sensitivity reaction to them that can actually worsen their symptoms.

A particularly well-known preservative called benzalkonium chloride, or BAK, should be avoided for particularly sensitive individuals.

But it's among the most commonly used preservatives and found in many eye care brands, so be sure to read ingredient labels if you need to use drops frequently for a severe syndrome.

Tear Changing

Some artificial tears have ingredients that change the chemical make-up of your tears to decrease negative or pathological changes that can occur to your eye. These changes may occur when you have dry eyes for a long period of time.

One school of thought is that if you change the composition of the tear film, the symptoms of dry eye will be reduced. Artificial tear brands that change the composition of your tears include:

  • Optive
  • Akwa Tears
  • Thera Tears

Eye Coating 

Some artificial tears have ingredients that promote healing of the surface cells of the eye. Artificial tears that contain hydroxypropyl guar are much more likely to improve the moisture content of cells that have more damage due to dryness.

HP-guar is a molecule that forms a gel layer that protects the damaged cells. This gel layer also increases the likelihood of the water component of your tears to "stick" to your eye. Artificial tear brands that work by coating the eye include:

  • Systane Ultra
  • Blink Tears

Oil Stabilizing

Some artificial tears aim to stabilize the oil part of the tear film. The oil part of the tear film can be disrupted if conditions such as blepharitis or meibomian gland dysfunction occur.

If the oil part of the tear layer is disrupted, your natural tears will evaporate at a much faster rate than normal, leaving your eyes feeling dry and gritty.

These artificial tear brands contain oily ingredients such as castor oil or mineral oil. Examples include:

  • Refresh Endura
  • Systane Balance
  • Smooth XP

How to Apply Artificial Tears

Applying artificial tears is typically straightforward. It works best when you tip your head back, pulling down your eyelid slightly so you create a "pocket" space for the eyedrops.

With your other hand, squeeze the appropriate amount of artificial tears into the space. Close your eye, and keep a finger pressed on the corner near your nose for a minute. This will keep the artificial tears from running out of the eye or into your nose.

For some people, the best time to use artificial tears or ointment may be at night so as to avoid dry eye symptoms when they wake up. But it will depend on the reason for their use and how often they are needed, so check with your eye care professional about when to use your eye drops.

A Word From Verywell

It is important for you to discuss your dry eye symptoms with your eye care professional. They can accurately diagnosis the cause of your dry eyes and recommend a specific artificial tears. It may be a better alternative for the type and severity of your dry eye condition.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Facts about tears.

  3. Hanstock HG, Edwards JP, Walsh NP. Tear lactoferrin and lysozyme as clinically relevant biomarkers of mucosal immune competence. Front Immunol. 2019;10:1178. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2019.01178.

  4. Datta S, Baudouin C, Brignole-Baudouin F, Denoyer A, Cortopassi GA. The Eye Drop Preservative Benzalkonium Chloride Potently Induces Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Preferentially Affects LHON Mutant Cells. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2017 Apr 1;58(4):2406-2412. doi:10.1167/iovs.16-20903.

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  7. Srinivasan S, Manoj V. A Decade of Effective Dry Eye Disease Management with Systane Ultra (Polyethylene Glycol/Propylene Glycol with Hydroxypropyl Guar) Lubricant Eye Drops. Clin Ophthalmol. 2021 Jun 9;15:2421-2435. doi:10.2147/OPTH.S294427.

  8. Horton M, Horton M, Reinhard, E. Master the maze of artificial tears.

  9. National Eye Institute. How to Put in Eye Drops.

Additional Reading
  • The Eye Digest, The University of Illinois, Eye & Ear Infirmary, Chicago, Illinois. Artificial Tears: Too Many Choices.

By Troy Bedinghaus, OD
Troy L. Bedinghaus, OD, board-certified optometric physician, owns Lakewood Family Eye Care in Florida. He is an active member of the American Optometric Association.