What Are the Best Eye Drops for Dry Eyes?

Dry eye drops are one of the main treatments for dry eye. Also called artificial tears, these drops help to lubricate the eyes. However, not all dry eye drops are the same.

Here's more information on the different ingredients you might find in eye drops, which can help you select the best one to soothe your dry eye symptoms.

Eye drop instilled in a brown eye.


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Best Eye Drops

Dry eye drops provide moisture to eyes that have become dry. Your eyes may become dry for several reasons:

  • You're in a dry climate or on an airplane.
  • You're tired.
  • You've been wearing contact lenses.
  • Your eyes aren't making enough tears or the tears they make are of poor quality.

Dry eye drops are available over-the-counter (OTC). They are made with some of the same ingredients found in your natural tears, which protect the surface of the eyes.

Here is more information on some of the common ingredients in dry eye drops.

Preservatives and Preservative-Free Drops

Eye drops often contain preservatives that protect the liquid in the bottle from bacteria growth that could occur after it's been opened.

Some of the most common preservatives used in eye drop preparations include:

  • Benzalkonium chloride
  • Polyquad
  • Sodium perborate
  • Ocupure
  • Purite

Preservatives may irritate the eyes, particularly if you have severe dry eye. If you have moderate to severe dry eye and you are using dry eye drops more than four times a day, preservative-free eye drops might be a better choice. The product label will indicate if it is preservative-free.

Lipid-Based Drops

There are two types of dry eye: evaporative and aqueous-deficient. An eye doctor can help you determine the type of dry eye that you have.

Evaporative dry eye is much more common than the aqueous-deficient type.

If you have evaporative dry eye, the watery elements of your tears go away quickly because the oily layer of the eye surface does not make enough oil or makes poor-quality oil.

If you have aqueous-deficient dry eye, there are not enough tears in your eyes. Inadequate tears can be a side effect of a medication or be caused by diseases such as Sjogren's syndrome.

If you have evaporative dry eye, look for drops with lipid-based ingredients. Examples of ingredients in lipid-based eye drops include:

  • Castor oil
  • Glycerin
  • Hydroxypropyl-guar
  • Mineral oil

Gels and Ointments for Dry Eye

If artificial tears are not helping your dry eye, you can also try OTC gels or ointments. Gels are the next step up from artificial tears, and ointments are the thickest formulation.

The formulations are thicker than dry eye drops, which means they last longer. However, the thickness can also make it harder for you to see after using the product. Eye doctors usually recommend using a dry eye ointment before you go to bed.

Electrolytes

Electrolytes are essential minerals like calcium, potassium, and sodium. Lubricating eye drops often contain sodium and potassium, which are also part of your natural tears. These electrolytes can help improve the eye's surface.

Drops to Avoid

Not all eye drops that are available OTC are considered artificial tears. You'll want to avoid certain types of eye drops unless your eye doctor specifically recommends them.

Types of eye drops you might want to avoid include:

  • Antibiotic eye drops: These drops are made for eye infections and are usually available only by prescription. Some common antibiotic eye drops include azithromycin and tobramycin.
  • Allergy eye drops: If you have eye allergies, your eyes might feel itchy when exposed to pollen, mold, or dust. Eye drops for eye allergies are not made specifically for dry eye. Artificial tears, however, may help with eye allergy symptoms. Some examples of allergy eye drops include ketotifen fumarate and olopatadine hydrochloride.
  • Redness-relieving eye drops: Drops for relieving redness are suited for temporary redness in the eyes (for example, from allergies, contact lenses, or smoke irritation). If used too often, the drops can cause rebound redness, which makes your eyes look even redder than they were when you first used the drops. Eye doctors recommend using drops for red eyes only occasionally and for a short time. Drops for red eyes include naphazoline or tetrahydrozoline. Preservative-free dry eye drops might be more helpful for reducing redness than chronic use of drops for red eyes.

What to Do If You Wear Contact Lenses

If you wear contact lenses, you may find that artificial tears help treat the dryness they can cause. There are a few tips to keep in mind when using dry eye drops if you are a contact lens wearer:


  • Find out if you can use the drops while wearing contacts: Most dry eye drops are fine to use with your contact lenses in. However, some of the thicker formulations might advise you to wait 15 minutes before inserting your contacts. Make sure to read the product label.
  • Look for rewetting drops: Rewetting drops are specifically designed to make your eyes more comfortable while you wear contact lenses. They are labeled "for contact lenses" and sold near the contact lens cleaning solutions. You can choose rewetting drops or artificial tears; just be sure to follow any instructions on using the tears while wearing contacts. Both types of drops are effective and safe.
  • Talk to your eye doctor about your contact lenses: The material used in your contact lenses and the size of the lenses could help your dry eye symptoms. You might also be able to switch to daily contacts, which can help eliminate the buildup of debris and other irritants on your lenses.

When to See a Doctor

If you are using drops and other products but they are not helping your dry eyes, it's time to make an appointment to see an eye doctor for an exam.

There are also a few more symptoms that should prompt you to see an eye doctor when using dry eye drops:

  • The drops cause symptoms of an allergic reaction: This could include itchiness, breathing problems, or swelling. If these symptoms happen, see a doctor immediately.
  • You are using dry eye drops six or more times a day: After evaluating your dry eye symptoms, your eye doctor might recommend something else to help provide dry eye relief.
  • You have dry eyes and changes to your vision or blurry vision.
  • Your eyes often feel tired.

Prescription Eye Drops

If artificial tears do not help your dry eye symptoms, your eye doctor may recommend prescription eye drops. The most common type of prescription eye drops for dry eye is cyclosporine, which helps to treat the inflammation in your eye glands and causes your eyes to produce their own tears.

Cyclosporine eye drops are sold under the brand names Restasis and Cequa. Another prescription medication that works similarly is called lifitegrast (Xiidra). While cyclosporine and lifitegrast might be more effective than artificial tears at treating your symptoms, they require a prescription and will likely cost more—even if you have insurance.

Other types of prescription eye drops for dry eye include:

  • Steroid-based eye drops
  • Autologous serum tears (these tears are made from your blood and are reserved for severe dry eye)

A Word From Verywell

Over-the-counter dry eye drops can be helpful if you have dry eyes, but you may not find the right match immediately. The first thing to do is find out which type of dry eye you have, then look at the ingredients in different products to see which ones will address your symptoms the best.

If one type of dry eye drops does not work for you, try another. If the dry eye drops you use do not provide relief even after using them a few times a day, see an eye doctor for an exam. They might be able to prescribe you a product that could be more effective.

While OTC drops can be an affordable option, if they don't work and you need a prescription, you might be worried about the cost. If you have insurance, find out what your plan will cover. You can also look online for coupons to help reduce the cost of both OTC and prescription eye drops.

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4 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.
  1. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Lubricating eye drops for dry eye.

  2. Lemp MA, Crews LA, Bron AJ, Foulks GN, Sullivan BD. Distribution of aqueous-deficient and evaporative dry eye in a clinic-based cohort: A retrospective study. Cornea. 2012;31:472-478.

  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Redness-relieving eye drops.

  4. Pucker AD. A review of the compatibility of topical artificial tears and rewetting drops with contact lenses. Cont Lens Anterior Eye. 2020;43:426-432.