Genetics determine the color of the eyes, which often darkens in the first few years of life. As a person ages or the lighting shifts, eye color can change slightly, but some people seek lasting, significant adjustments.

If a person wants to change their eye color temporarily, this is most often accomplished with contact lenses. There are many types available that provide different effects.

For people hoping to alter their eye color permanently, iris implant surgery is available. However, due to the severe associated risks, many doctors discourage this option.

In this article, we describe how eye color develops and the most common ways to change it, temporarily or permanently.

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A person's eye color is determined by their genes.

The iris is the colored portion of the eye.

The iris can be:

  • brown
  • black
  • green
  • blue
  • hazel
  • a mixture of these colors

A combination of the parents' genes determines the color of the iris. Because of the many possible combinations, the eye color of a child may not match that of either parent, making it nearly impossible to predict.

Eye color can change over time, but only slightly.

The eye color of most babies will darken in the first few years of life. During this time, the body produces a darker pigment, known as melanin.

Expansion or contraction of the iris can also lead to minute changes in eye color.

This can occur when a person:

  • focuses the eyes
  • spends time either in very dark or brightly lit areas
  • experiences strong emotions

People sometimes notice that their eye color lightens with age. This is natural and should not be a cause for concern.

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Tinted contact lenses are the easiest way to temporarily change eye color.

Using tinted contact lenses is the most common way to change eye color for a short time.

Three types of lenses are available, depending on how drastic a change is desired. They include:

  • visibility lenses
  • enhancement lenses
  • opaque lenses

Visibility lenses

These are lightly tinted, and will only have a small effect if a person's eyes are very light in color.

Visibility lenses are tinted to help people see whether their lenses are in their case. The tinting also helps a person to find them if they are accidentally dropped.

Enhancement lenses

Enhancement lenses are semiopaque.

They do not fully alter the color of the eye, but they can intensify it, making it stand out more.

Opaque lenses

On these lenses, the iris is colored in fully, allowing a person to change their eye color completely.

Opaque lenses come in a variety of colors, including:

  • violet
  • blue
  • green
  • brown
  • hazel
  • gray

Risks of using contact lenses

As with corrective lenses, decorative lenses have certain risks. Failing to clean and care for contact lenses can, in some cases, result in blindness, as well as other eye issues.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States require a prescription for cosmetic lenses. This means that all contacts, even decorative lenses, sold legally are fitted by an optometrist or ophthalmologist, to reduce the risk of complications.

The organization warns that buying lenses without a prescription increases the risk of developing:

  • itchy, watery eyes
  • blurry vision
  • a scratched cornea
  • partial vision loss or blindness

Whether they are tinted or clear, purchase contact lenses from sources that require or offer a prescription and are FDA-approved.

Also, the FDA recommend using the same care toward decorative lenses that a person uses on corrective lenses. This will help to avoid complications.

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Iris implant surgery is available but is extremely risky and may cause irreversible vision loss.

In some parts of the world, iris implant surgery is available.

It was developed to repair or replace the iris following illness or trauma. However, because it can provide a permanent change in eye color, it is becoming popular among people seeking purely cosmetic changes.

Many risks are associated with this surgery. Authors of a small study found that people who underwent iris implant surgery for cosmetic reasons were likely to experience complications, such as:

Iris implant surgery in the U.S.

This type of surgery is not currently legal in the U.S. Clinical trials that could confirm its safety have yet to be performed.

Does honey and tepid water work?

Some people promote the use of honey and tepid water to change the color of the eyes gradually. No scientific evidence supports this method, and it is not considered safe. Tap water and honey are not sterile and can cause infection.

If the color of one or both eyes changes suddenly and significantly, see an eye doctor as soon as possible.

It is particularly dangerous for eyes to change from brown to green, or from blue to brown.

Major changes in the iris' pigment can indicate illness, such as:

  • Horner's syndrome
  • Fuchs heterochromic iridocyclitis
  • pigmentary glaucoma
  • iris melanoma

All require medical treatment and care.

People using decorative lenses should see a doctor if they experience the following eye-related symptoms:

  • persistent pain
  • redness
  • loss of vision or blurry vision
  • discharge

Anyone who experiences changes in vision after undergoing iris implant surgery should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Decorative, or cosmetic, lenses provide the safest and quickest way to change the color of the eyes.

Buying lenses from a reputable source, having them fitted by a doctor, and exercising proper care can reduce associated risks.

Anyone seeking a more permanent change in color and considering surgery should be aware of the many severe risks. It is not considered a viable option.