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Dryness can cause irritation and redness, which leads to discomfort and can make wearing contact lenses difficult. Gel eye drops lubricate the eyes and can ease dry eye symptoms.

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Tears play an important role in keeping the eyes healthy. They protect the eyes from irritation and infection, keep the eyes moist, and help focus light so that the person’s vision stays clear.

The body produces tears from glands above the eyes. The tears spread over the cornea when a person blinks, then drain into the tear ducts, which sit between the nose and the inside corners of the eyes.

Around 7% of women and 4% of men in the United States do not produce enough tears. This is one cause of eye dryness, an issue that can lead to irritation and problems with vision.

Symptoms of dry eyes include:

  • a stinging and burning sensation
  • blurry vision
  • a scratchy or gritty feeling
  • redness
  • irritation
  • strings of mucus in or around the eyes
  • excess tears, to compensate

In addition, a person with dry eyes may have difficulty wearing contacts.

These eye drops can be suitable for people with dry eyes. Gel drops start off as a liquid but turn to gel when they come into contact with the eye.

There are several types of gel eye drops. They may be:

  • Thermo responsive: These turn to gel when they encounter the temperature of the eyes.
  • pH responsive: These turn to gel due to a change in pH, when they come into contact with the neutral pH of the eyes, for example.
  • Ion-responsive: These rely on a chemical reaction when in contact with the eyes.
  • Multi-stimuli responsive: Some eye drops rely on a mix of responses to change into gel. For example, some eye drops are both heat sensitive and ion responsive.

Lubricating eye drops act like a person’s tears, supporting the natural film of tears on the eye and increasing moisture.

The tear film has three layers:

  1. an oily top layer that prevents tears from drying too quickly and keeps the surface of the eye smooth
  2. a watery middle layer that keeps the eyes moist
  3. a mucous inner layer that helps the tear film stay on the surface

Gel eye drops are a type of lubricating eye drops. They are thicker than liquid drops and so may cause temporary blurring.

Some eye drops are only available by prescription. Anyone who is experiencing symptoms that do not resolve or become worse should contact a healthcare professional.

How we chose products

Medical News Today chooses products that fit the following criteria:

  • Price: The products are suitable for a range of budgets.
  • Function: The products are suitable for a range of people, including those who wear contact lenses.
  • Accessibility: The products are available to buy online and in stores.

Below are some factors that a person might consider before making a purchase:

  • Severity of the symptoms: Some gel eye drops are only suitable for mild symptoms, and others are suitable for moderate or severe ones.
  • Reason for use: It is important to use the correct type of eye drops. Anyone with questions should contact a healthcare professional.
  • Frequency of use: People who use gel eye drops frequently may prefer those without preservatives to reduce eye irritation.
  • Contact lenses: Companies have formulated some products specifically for contact lens wearers.

Below, find various gel eye drops that are available to buy without a prescription, both online and in person.

Systane Gel Drops

Best for digital eye strain

These gel eye drops are suitable for people with dry eyes and digital eye strain.

The company says that its product offers long-lasting relief and protection from dry eye symptoms. It also says that these drops are easy to apply, and that a person should use one or two drops in each eye.

At the time of publishing, Systane Gel Drops cost $11.97.

Refresh Optive Mega-3

Best preservative-free eye drops

These preservative-free eye drops contain omega-3 from flaxseed oil.

The company says that its product is suitable for people with dry eye symptoms and meibomian gland dysfunction. This health issue involves tiny glands along the eyelids not producing enough oil to coat the eye’s surface and keep tears from evaporating.

A box of these eye drops contains 30 sterile, single-use vials. A person twists and pulls the tab on a vial and uses one or two drops in each eye.

At the time of publishing, Refresh Optive Mega-3 cost $19.49.

I-Med Pharma I-Drop Pur Gel

Best for severe dry eye symptoms

These preservative-free eye drops are suitable for people with moderate to severe symptoms.

The company says that its product provides longer-term lubrication without causing blurry vision.

The bottle has a one-way valve to dispense drops, and the tip is antibacterial, to reduce the likelihood of an infectious pathogen traveling from one eye to the other.

At the time of publishing, I-Drop Pur Gel is only available at in-store pharmacies. The company’s website has a store locator to help a person find a nearby store that sells this product.

hydraSense Night Therapy for Dry Eyes

Best for nighttime relief

These preservative-free gel drops are suitable for nighttime relief of dry eye symptoms.

The product contains sodium hyaluronate, which the company says is a lubricant that is clinically proven to be effective. It highlights the ease of application and the sterile, multi-dose bottle. A person uses one or two drops in each eye as needed.

At the time of publishing, hydraSense Night Therapy for Dry Eyes cost about $30.00.

Refresh Relieva for Contacts

Best for contact lens wearers

These eye drops are suitable for people who wear soft or rigid, gas permeable contact lenses. However, it is important to check with an eye doctor before making a purchase.

A person applies one or two drops to each eye as needed. Also, the company says, a person can apply one or two drops to each side of the contact lens.

At the time of publishing, Refresh Relieva for Contacts cost $12.78.

People can make several lifestyle changes to manage dry eye symptoms.

The National Eye Institute recommends:

  • avoiding smoke, wind, and air conditioning, when possible
  • using a humidifier to reduce dryness indoors
  • limiting screen time and taking regular breaks
  • wearing wraparound sunglasses when outside
  • staying hydrated
  • getting 8 hours of sleep in every 24 hours

Some people require prescription eye drops. A healthcare professional may also recommend tear duct plugs, which can keep the eyes lubricated by preventing tears from draining into the tear ducts.

In some cases, a doctor may recommend surgery to tighten the lower eyelid.

Below are some frequently asked questions about gel eye drops.

How often should people with dry eyes use eye drops?

The American Academy of Ophthalmology says that people can use eye drops for dry eyes as frequently as they need to.

Anyone using eye drops more than four times a day may find preservative-free drops more beneficial. Preservatives can irritate the eyes over time.

How many drops should people use?

Always follow the directions on packaging, unless a healthcare professional gives different guidance.

When do the drops expire?

Usually, gel eye drops last for up to 12 months after a person opens the bottle. But it is a good idea to check the use-by date on the packaging.

It is also important to follow storage instructions, as storing eye drops in areas that are too hot or cold may reduce the shelf life or effectiveness of the product.

Dry eyes can cause irritation and redness, and dryness may interfere with vision and the ability to wear contacts. People can purchase over-the-counter gel eye drops to lubricate their eyes and relieve the symptoms.

Always follow the instructions on packaging, unless a doctor has offered different guidance. If symptoms do not improve or become worse after using an over-the-counter product, stop using it and contact a healthcare professional.