Discount Reading Glasses: A Bargain, But Will They Harm Your Eyes?

Are inexpensive reading glasses worth it?. Christine Balderas / Getty Images

They're in the drugstore, the bookstore, even the dollar store. In fact, it seems that anywhere there's reading to be done, you can find inexpensive over-the-counter (OTC) reading glasses. But how safe is this mass-produced eyewear, compared with prescription glasses that can cost a hundred times as much? Here's a look at what discount or ready-made magnifying reading glasses are designed to do, and whether you should try them.

The Aging Eye: Most people encounter some changes in their vision as they get older. The most typical and noticeable shift is jokingly referred to as "short arm syndrome", or the need to hold things closer because of a reduced ability to focus on near objects. Officially, it's known as "presbyopia".

Presbyopia occurs because of a stiffening of the lens of the eye, leaving the lens less able to bend in order to focus, and because of changes in the muscles that govern the lens.

A little magnifying muscle helps: As you may have discovered, anything that makes that fine print larger will help — whether it's an old-fashioned magnifying glass, or just zooming in on your smart phone's camera shot (something I've done to read a restaurant menu). Magnifying power in reading glasses makes small objects and words on a page look bigger, so they're easier to see.

Prescription eyeglasses vs ready-made readers: Prescription glasses may correct a few different problems, including nearsightedness (difficulty viewing distant objects), farsightedness (trouble seeing things that are close), and astigmatism. Astigmatism occurs when the front of the eye is shaped more like a football than a round soccer ball, and it can cause distorted images.

In addition, because prescription glasses are designed specifically for you, the optical centers of each lens (where the lens will optically perform the best) are aligned with the centers of each of your eyes' pupils.

Ready-made readers, by contrast, are mass-produced and designed for one purpose only: to magnify the image in front of you. They will not correct farsightedness or astigmatism.

Are over-the-counter readers safe?: Natalie Hutchings, Associate Professor in the University of Waterloo's School of Optometry and Vision Science, tells me that reading glasses that are mass-produced will not make you go blind, but they can cause problems in some people.

"For many older adults, these reading glasses will be just fine, and will not irreversibly damage your eyes," she says. "If your prescription is not very strong, and you use them for only brief periods of time — to read a quick label at the grocery store, for example — these inexpensive glasses should do no harm."

Hutchings notes, however, that if you're experiencing eye strain or headaches, you should have your eye doctor inspect your reading glasses.

She cites research from the University of Cincinnati evaluating mass-produced magnifying readers. Presented at the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) annual conference in May 2013, the yet-unpublished study examined 160 pairs of ready-made readers. Almost a quarter of the pairs (24%) were found to have optical centers that were out by as much as 2mm, a result that researchers Constance West and David Hunter concluded could lead to eyestrain and double vision in many adults. West and Hunter advise eye specialists to measure the optical centers and magnifying power of their patients' OTC eyewear.

Natalie Hutchings offers the following tips for safe use of ready-made reading glasses:

  • Choose only the power that allows you to read something at a comfortable distance. Stronger is not necessarily better.
  • Examine the glasses for bubbles, waves, or other distortions that could bother your eyes
  • Don't use over-the-counter readers for working on the computer; you sit further from the screen than you do from a book or magazine
  • Use these readers for quick jobs only, like reading a label at the grocery store
  • If you do develop headaches, take your discount glasses to the eye doctor so the readers can be evaluated

Read more: How to choose the best sunglasses

Finally, do not forego a regular eye exam even if these OTC readers work for you. Visual acuity is only one aspect of vision that an ophthalmologist or optometrist will evaluate. They can also diagnose potentially serious problems like diabetes and retinal detachment, in the early stages when there may be no vision symptoms.

Read more about age-related changes in the body:


Eyeglasses for Vision Correction. American Academy of Ophthalmology Public Information Sheet. Accessed June 18, 2013.

Presbyopia. US National Institutes of Health Medline Public Information Sheet. Accessed June 18, 2013.

Your Aging Eyes. US National Institutes of Health Public Information Sheet. Accessed June 18, 2013.

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