Are You Using the Best Eye Drops for Dry Eyes?

Medically Reviewed by Shruthi N, MD on June 17, 2024
10 min read

Dry eyes can be uncomfortable or even painful. To get some relief, you might head over to the drugstore to pick up some eye drops. Just a quick trip, you think, until you find yourself standing before shelves full of options. With all the different types out there, does it matter which you choose?

Yes, it definitely does. You use different types of drops to treat different problems, like allergies versus dry eyes. And the wrong ones may make your symptoms worse.

All eye drops help your eyes feel better and less dry, but they contain different ingredients to address different issues. The eye drops that are best for you depend on your symptoms and what’s causing them. For example, it may be allergies that are making your eyes itchy and watery, or dry eye syndrome that’s making your eyes feel irritated all the time. Eye drops can help ease your symptoms and keep your eyes lubricated. Some types mimic your natural tears. Learn more to find the type that's right for you.

You may have dry eyes because of allergies or because you have dry eye, also called dry eye syndrome or dry eye disease. It means your eyes can’t maintain a healthy coating of tears, which your eyes need.

If your eyes feel dry because of allergies, your symptoms may include:

  • Itchy eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Swelling or puffiness around your eyelids
  • Mucus discharge

If you have these eye symptoms along with a runny nose, allergies may be to blame. They might be caused by pollen, dust, or pet dander, for example. These eye allergies are also called allergic conjunctivitis. 

If you have dry eye syndrome rather than allergies, you may have some of these symptoms:

  • A stinging or burning feeling
  • Irritation or redness
  • A gritty feeling, like something is in your eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Pain while wearing your contact lenses
  • Strings of mucus in or around your eyes
  • Excessive tears (When your eyes are irritated by dry eye, they make more tears.)

Dry eye has several possible causes. Here are some of them:

  • As you get older, hormonal changes can cause your eyes to make fewer tears, especially if you’ve gone through menopause.
  • You spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen or reading, which reduces the number of times you blink.
  • You use contacts for a long time.
  • You have a disease such as rheumatoid arthritisSjögren’s syndrome, thyroid disease, or lupus.
  • You take certain medicines, including some diuretics, beta-blockers, allergy and cold medicines, anxiety and antidepressant medicines, and sleeping pills.

Regardless of what’s causing your dry eyes, you might want to try eye drops to help your eyes feel better. 

Lubricating eye drops, also called artificial tears, can help relieve dry eye symptoms by keeping the surface of your eyes nice and moist. They mimic your natural tears. You can get lubricating eye drops over the counter, and many different products exist. They come in three formats:

  • Liquid drops
  • Gel-based drops, which are a little thicker than liquid
  • Ointments, which are thicker and come in tubes rather than bottles

Gel-based drops and ointments can cause temporary blurry vision, so they are often used at bedtime instead of during the day.

Lubricating eye drop ingredients

Artificial tears may contain a mix of some of these ingredients:

  • Lubricants to keep your eyes moist (All artificial tears have some.)
  • Electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, which can help maintain healthy tear film on your eyes
  • Guar gum, found in more oily drops. It can be a big help if you get dry eyes because your tears dry up quickly.
  • Oils such as flaxseed oil and castor oil, which can help thicken your tear film
  • Preservatives to keep bacteria from growing in the bottle

Some lubricating eye drops don’t contain any preservatives. You may need to try different types of artificial tears to see which one works best for your eyes.

How often can you use artificial tears?

If the artificial tears you’re using contain preservatives, many eye doctors say you shouldn’t use them more than four times a day. If you’re using your drops more often than that, preservative-free ones are a better option. 

Be sure to follow the dosage recommendations on the package. And if you’re using lubricating eye drops more than two or three times every day, it might be a good idea to see an ophthalmologist, because you might need treatment for your dry eyes beyond lubricating eye drops.

Best OTC eye drops for dry eyes

There are many artificial tears products, both with and without preservatives. You might want to try different brands to see which works for you. Here are some examples:

  • Blink GelTears Lubricating Dry Eye Drops
  • Refresh Tears Lubricant Eye Drops
  • Systane COMPLETE PF Multi-Dose Preservative Free Dry Eye Drops
  • Biotrue Hydration Boost Eye Drops for Irritated, Dry Eyes from Bausch + Lomb

Eye drops that contain preservatives last longer, and they're often cheaper. But the preservatives may irritate your eyes, especially if you have moderately to severely dry eyes. Then they can make your symptoms worse. Also, some people are allergic to the preservatives in these eye drops.

Avoid artificial tears that contain preservatives if:

  • They bother your eyes.
  • Your dry eye is moderate to severe.
  • You use drops more than four times a day.

If you use your eye drops more than four times a day, preservative-free ones are usually a better option. When you're looking for preservative-free eye drops, note that some of them don't come in the typical eye drop bottle. You usually find them in single-use vials instead. You snap the lid off, put the drops in, and throw out the vial. They also tend to be more expensive than other kinds.

If your dry eye is more severe, your doctor may prescribe eye drops that are FDA-approved and available only by prescription. These include:

  • Cyclosporine (Restasis) 
  • Lifitegrast (Xiidra)
  • Cholinergics (cevimeline, pilocarpine) 

These eye drops help your eyes produce more tears. 

Sometimes, doctors prescribe antibiotics in eye drop form to reduce inflammation along the edge of your eyelids.

When your body has an allergic reaction to an allergen like pet dander or pollen, it releases a substance called histamine. That's what triggers the runny nose and other allergy symptoms. Allergies can make your eyes red, itchy, puffy, and dry. Sometimes, artificial tears can give you some relief, but allergy eye drops that are made to address allergies may be a better choice.

Allergy drop ingredients

Here are some common ingredients in allergy eye drops:

  • Decongestants without antihistamines. Decongestant eye drops can reduce redness.
  • Decongestants with antihistamines. Some decongestant eye drops contain antihistamines, which block histamine and prevent allergy symptoms, including itchiness.
  • Mast cell stabilizers. These ingredients work by preventing your body from releasing histamine in the first place.
  • Antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers. Although mast cell stabilizers block histamine, they don’t provide any relief for allergy symptoms right away, so some allergy drops contain antihistamines as well, to help relieve your symptoms.
  • Corticosteroids. Eye drops that contain steroids can treat chronic and severe allergy symptoms. These eye drops aren’t available over the counter, so you need a prescription.

How often can you use allergy drops?

It’s important to follow the package instructions on what dose to use with your allergy drops. And if you’re using prescription eye drops, like ones that contain corticosteroids, always use them as prescribed, because they may have serious side effects. 

If your eye drops contain antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers, you typically use them once or twice a day.

If you’re using antihistamine eye drops, you shouldn’t use them for more than 2 or 3 days. If you use them for longer than that, they might make your allergy symptoms worse. 

Best allergy drops for dry eyes

Here are some common allergy drop brands:

  • Alaway (antihistamine and mast cell stabilizer)
  • Optivar (antihistamine)
  • Pataday (antihistamine and mast cell stabilizer)

Usually, anti-redness drops contain a decongestant called tetrahydrozoline. It works by reducing swollen blood vessels in your eyes. That clears the redness out of your eyes. But be careful when using anti-redness drops. If you put them in for more than a few days, they can irritate your eyes and make the redness even worse. 

Another problem: If you use them often, your eyes get dependent on them and may get red when you stop using them. This is called a rebound effect. To avoid this effect, artificial tears may be a better option to use regularly.

You can use anti-redness drops from time to time, but it’s best to use them for only a short time. For example, if your eyes are red and you’re about to be photographed or go to a special event, you could try anti-redness drops beforehand.


If you wear contact lenses, it can make choosing eye drops a little harder, because not all drops go well with contacts. Make sure the eye drops you choose are labeled safe for or designed for contact lens wear, and avoid drops that contain preservatives. They can cause irritation.

Rewetting drops are similar to lubricating eye drops, but they are made specifically to keep your eyes comfortable when you’re wearing your contacts. It’s a good idea to check with your doctor to make sure you’re using eye drops that will work well with the type of contacts you wear.

You can use eye drops that are not made for contact lens wear if you take your contacts out 5 minutes before using the drops. Then you should wait another 10 to 15 minutes before putting your contacts back in.

Because they go straight into your eyes, eye drops bypass some of your body’s natural defenses, so they pose a risk of infection. This is why eye drops need to be sterile. Here are some tips to prevent contamination and avoid problems with eye drops:

  • Wash your hands before using eye drops.
  • Don’t let the tip of the bottle touch your hands or anything else.
  • Don’t use eye drops labeled as homeopathic, because these haven’t been approved by the FDA.
  • If you’ve had eye drops in your medicine cabinet for a while, make sure they’re not expired and haven’t been recalled by the FDA.
  • Stop using your eye drops if they’re causing pain or discomfort, or you have discharge coming from your eyes.

When using eye drops, there’s a risk of infection. Be sure to wash your hands first and follow the product instructions to avoid contamination. Other than infection, some possible side effects include:

  • Eye drops may irritate your eyes, especially if they contain preservatives.
  • Anti-redness drops can cause a rebound effect and make your symptoms worse.
  • Eye drops can cause blurry vision. 
  • You may have an allergic reaction to certain eye drops. If you have swelling, itchiness, breathing problems, or dizziness, see a doctor right away. 

Sometimes, dry, red, or irritated eyes come and go and they're not much of a problem. In other cases, you may have a medical problem that needs more than just drops. See your doctor if you have eye problems that don't go away, even after taking drops for a while. Also, see them if taking drops makes your eye problem worse or affects your vision.

Dry eyes can have many causes, and eye drops can help relieve dry, itchy, red, or irritated eyes. Many eye drop options exist, both over the counter and by prescription, and the one that’s right for you depends on your symptoms and what’s causing them. Once you figure out what type of eye drops are best, you might want to try different brands to see which works best for you. When using eye drops, always be careful to avoid contamination so you can keep your eyes healthy.

Which eye drops are the safest?

All FDA-approved eye drops are considered safe, but eye drops without preservatives are safest to use if you’re going to use them often. You should choose eye drops based on your symptoms and what’s causing them.

Which eye drops are best for aging eyes? 

Aging can cause dry eyes. Artificial tears, or lubricating eye drops, may help.

Do OTC eye drops work for dry eyes, or do I need a prescription-based eye drop for treatment? 

Many eye drop products are available over the counter. But if your dry eyes are severe, your doctor may prescribe eye drops that you can get only through a prescription. 

How can I prevent dryness in my eyes? 

If you’re reading or looking at a computer screen for a long time, take breaks to close your eyes for a few minutes or blink a few times. Avoid smoke, and consider using a humidifier in the winter to add moisture to the air.