The Best Eye Drops
The best eye drops should target the root cause of your dry, red, or itchy eyes without worsening existing irritation. To find the best, we interviewed optometrists and ophthalmologists to get their take on preservatives, redness-reducers, and other common ingredients. Then we scrutinized labels and packaging and tried several popular brands for ourselves. Our top picks offer gentle, easy-to-apply relief.
A water-based drop designed to mimic natural tears. Available in both standard and preservative-free formulas.
Bausch & Lomb Soothe Preservative-Free Eye Drops
A lipid-based drop that may offer relief if a water-based formula isn't helping.
Contains vasoconstrictors to temporarily shrink blood vessels and reduce redness, plus ingredients to soothe dryness.
Refresh Contacts Eye Drops
Treats dryness without clouding or discoloring contact lenses. Can be used on both hard and soft contacts.
The Best Eye Drops
- Blink Tears Lubricating Eye Drops -
Best General Use Drop
- Bausch & Lomb Soothe Preservative Free Lubricant Eye Drops -
Best for Frequent Dryness
- Clear Eyes Pure Relief Multi-Symptom Eye Drops -
Best for Redness Relief
- Refresh Contacts Eye Drops -
Best for Contact Rewetting
When your eyes are already irritated, you don’t want to put anything in them that will make them worse. This can make choosing the best eye drops a challenge, thanks to a dizzying array of brands, formulas, and tongue-twisting ingredient lists.
To hone in on the underlying cause of your dry eyes, you’ll need a doctor’s diagnosis, but if you’re looking for a safe general-use product in the meantime, it’s hard to go wrong with Blink Tears. This gentle formula helps replace the water found in natural tears, and it’s the only drop we tested that contains sodium hyaluronate — a lubricant naturally produced by your eyes that decreases inflammation. Blink Tears is available in both a standard formula and an extra-gentle (but more expensive) preservative-free option.
If you’re experiencing frequent dryness, it’s likely that evaporation is at least partly to blame. In other words, your eyes may be producing enough moisture — it’s just dissipating too quickly. In these cases, we like Bausch & Lomb Soothe Preservative Free Lubricant Eye Drops. Unlike water-based products, these strengthen your eyes’ lipid layer with glycerin, helping to trap moisture that would otherwise vanish.
Our pick for targeting redness is Clear Eyes Pure Relief Multi-Symptom Eye Drops, which constricts blood vessels to make them appear less red. Our experts told us that any “redness relief” drops have the long-term potential for eye irritation, so while Clear Eyes can also help with dryness, be aware that you shouldn’t use it for more than a week or two. That said, it was the only preservative-free anti-redness formula we could find, making it a little gentler than competitors.
For contact-wearers, Refresh Contacts Eye Drops stood out. It meets FDA standards for contact lens rewetters, which means it won’t cloud or discolor your lenses, and it’s also compatible with both hard and soft contacts.
How We Found the Best Eye Drops
We began by compiling a list of 73 eye drops from manufacturer websites and retail sites like Amazon, Walgreens, Vitacost, and Target. We limited our comparison to over-the-counter “drops” only, leaving out eye ointments and gels, as well as products designed to treat specific medical conditions like glaucoma or cataracts.
First, we eliminated drops that contain benzalkonium chloride.
One thing on which all of our experts agreed is that benzalkonium chloride (BAK), often used as a preservative in eye drops, has the potential to make matters worse. “BAK is an older chemical preservative that has some serious side effects,” says Dr. Melissa Barnett, a doctor of optometry in Sacramento, California. “If BAK is used daily, it may increase dryness and intensify the inflammation of a previously compromised ocular surface.” Since inflammation and dryness are both things that you’re hoping to alleviate, it doesn’t make much sense to compound the problem with BAK, especially when a new generation of much gentler preservatives is available.
Then we grouped eye drops according to function.
It’s impossible to compare a lubricating eye drop with an eye drop formulated to reduce redness — they have different active ingredients. It would be like comparing Skittles with M&Ms. So we separated our remaining contenders into three categories.
Lubricating Eye Drops for Dryness
Anatomy of the Tear Film The tear film that coats our eyes is made up of three layers: a mucin (mucus) layer on the surface of the cornea, an aqueous (water) layer on top of that, and a lipid (oil) layer on the outside of the eyeball, which helps prevent the water from evaporating.
This is the category into which most eye drops fall: products formulated to keep dryness at bay. But there are actually two types of lubricating drops. Aqueous drops replenish the watery inner layer of your tear film, while lipid-based drops fortify the outer layer of oil that keeps the water from evaporating. Dryness can occur when there’s too little of either component.
So which type do you need? Our experts suggested starting with aqueous drops. These are the most likely to provide temporary relief, since water will probably be missing in either scenario. But if aqueous drops don’t seem to be helping much, or if you’ve been instructed by your doctor, it might be time to move on to lipid-based drops.
Dr. Surendra Basti, ophthalmologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, confirmed this: “Without knowing the particular cause of the dryness, I would recommend aqueous tears to start. They tend to be absorbed faster and have less clouding and blurring than lipid-based tears.” But he notes, “that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be sufficient in the long term.”
Decongestant Eye Drops for Redness
“Redness relief” drops work by shrinking the tiny blood vessels in your eyes, making them appear less bloodshot. The ingredients that do this are called vasoconstrictors, and while they mask symptoms in the short term, they can cause dryness and irritation if used regularly. The rule of thumb from the medical community is not to rely on vasoconstricting eye drops for longer than two weeks.
Their power also decreases with continued use, so that you’ll have to use more to get the same effect. And when you stop using them, redness can return with a vengeance — a phenomenon called “rebound hyperemia.” The bottom line: Limit anti-redness drops to occasions when you really need to look your best.
Rewetting Eye Drops for Contact Lens Wearers
Contact lens wearers should generally steer clear of regular lubricating eye drops. Our experts told us that oil can contribute to the clouding and discoloration of your lenses, and even water-based drops can cause issues — your lenses essentially trap the drops and hold them on the surface of the eye, which can increase exposure to preservatives.
On top of that, the Food and Drug Administration has much stricter regulations for the approval of contact lens eye drops, since it regards the lenses themselves as “medical devices.” It’s safest to stick with the so-called “rewetters” specifically designed for contact lenses.
We picked the top products from each brand.
Several brands had multiple products with nearly identical ingredients, differing chiefly in the way they were marketed. In these cases, we opted for the brand’s “Cadillac” option — the product with the biggest claims. For example, we picked Refresh Optive Advanced (which boasts “triple action“) rather than plain old Refresh Optive Eye Drops (which had just two active ingredients).
Because anti-redness drops are pretty harsh on your eyes, for this category we also chose to test only preservative-free formulas, as a way of minimizing potential irritation as much as possible. This left us with just one product: Clear Eyes Pure Relief Multi-Symptom Eye Drops
For all other categories, if a particular drop came in both preserved and preservative-free versions, we took both.
That left us with 21 eye drops to test.
We ended up with 4 aqueous lubricating drops, 13 lipid-based lubricating drops, 1 decongestant (redness) drop, and 3 contact rewetters.
We dropped, blinked, and noted our impressions.
We instilled one to two drops of each product into our peepers, following guidelines from the National Institutes of Health and waiting at least 30 minutes between applications. While we couldn’t judge the effectiveness of active ingredients (we’re mercifully free of chronic eye irritation), we could pay close attention to the user experience.
All the drops succeeded at making our eyes feel moistened, but it was far from a uniform experience. Several lipid-based lubricants, such as Bausch & Lomb Soothe XP-Xtra Protection Eye Drops, felt uncomfortably viscous, and a few actually clouded our vision. A more pleasant surprise were the Ocusoft Retaine MGD Eye Drops: They were the only drops to appear cloudy, but were surprisingly comfortable once applied.
Some packaging seemed thoughtfully designed, like the small single-dose vials used by products like Refresh Optive Preservative-Free Eye Drops and Bion Tears Preservative-Free Lubricating Eye Drops that helped us waste less solution per use. Others, like Clear Eyes Preservative-Free Pure Relief Eye Drops had drippy applicators that made it hard to measure out precise quantities.
Our Picks for the Best Eye Drops
Best General Use Drop
If you’re looking for a gentle way to treat occasional dryness, Blink Tears is a safe bet: aqueous artificial tears whose main active ingredient, polyethylene glycol, mimics your eyes’ natural mucous membranes to relieve irritation. We loved how they felt in our tests, where they absorbed rapidly without any cloudiness or irritation. But Blink Tears really stood out because it was the only aqueous drop we tested that contained sodium hyaluronate, a lubricant that’s produced naturally by our eyes in response to ocular surface damage. Sodium hyaluronate helps control inflammation, retain water, and lower viscosity when you blink — which decreases the sensation of having “something in your eye.”
The preservative in Blink Tears’ multi-dose bottle is also one of the gentlest on the market. Manufactured under the brand name OcuPure, it’s what’s known as an oxidative preservative. Unlike more common chemical preservatives, oxidative preservatives break down into natural tear components when exposed to light, which means they don’t linger in the eye. By contrast, Bausch & Lomb’s Soothe Hydration Lubricant Eye Drops — another aqueous drop we tested — uses the chemical preservative edetate disodium, which has been shown to be at least mildly toxic to eye cells.
If you've just had LASIK, go preservative-free. Some people experience dry eyes after LASIK or other eye surgery. Eye drops can help, but it’s important to do everything possible to reduce irritation. Even very mild preservatives can prolong your symptoms if you're using the drops often enough.
Dr. Whitney Hauser, doctor of optometry at the Southern College of Optometry, points out that “while oxidative preservatives tend to be more gentle than chemical ones, both are still preservatives, and preservative-free is the most gentle to the ocular surface.” Fortunately, Blink Tears also offers a preservative-free formula that has the exact same active ingredients, though it is a little pricier.
A multi-dose bottle (0.5 ounce) of regular Blink Tears costs about $11. And while the preservative-free formula is more expensive — around $11 for 25 single-use vials (0.25 ounce total) — it’s a pretty good bargain next to other preservative-free products like Oasis Tears and Refresh Optive, which hover around $25 for 30 vials. In testing, both versions of Blink Tears were easy to apply: the multi-dose bottle squeezed out individual drops with no squirting or leaking, and the preservative-free vials had caps that twisted off easily, creating a tiny “bottle” that dispensed its tears evenly.
Best for Frequent Dryness
If you suffer from persistent dryness, a lipid-based product is sometimes more effective than an aqueous drop — the lipids help thicken the outer layer of your tear film to keep moisture from escaping, which is sometimes the underlying problem.
Bausch & Lomb Sooth Preservative-Free Eye Drops relies on two active ingredients to soothe your peepers: Glycerin and propylene glycol. These reduce inflammation, promote cell growth, and most importantly, thicken the natural lipid layer of the tear film.
You typically don’t need to use lipid-based drops quite as often as aqueous drops since they don’t evaporate as rapidly. But because B+L Soothe is preservative-free, it’s gentle enough to be used on a regular basis — and despite being preservative-free, it’s around the same price as many of the preserved drops we tested. B+L will run you about $12 for 0.56 ounces. Many preservative-free competitors fall into the $25 range.
The B+L vials are easy to twist open and squeeze, and our testers noted an instant soothing sensation upon contact with their eyes. By contrast, Visine All Day Comfort Dry Eye Relief — the cheapest lipid-based drops we tested — made our eyes water immediately upon contact.
One final side-note: If none of the over-the-counter products you try seem to be working, it’s best to check in with your doctor. Only a medical diagnosis can truly tell whether your dryness is caused mainly by tear evaporation (which requires a lipid drop) or a lack of tear production (for which an aqueous drop is better).
Best Short-Term Redness Relief
Bearing in mind the risks of overusing redness drops — which include dryness, irritation, and “rebound” redness when you stop using them — we found Clear Eyes Pure Relief Multi-Symptom to be the best of the bunch. It didn’t have much competition — 17 out of the 20 redness drops on our contenders list were eliminated because they contain BAK. Of the three that don’t, Clear Eyes Pure Relief is the only one that’s fully preservative-free, minimizing the risk of irritation after use.
The drops use the vasoconstrictor phenylephrine hydrochloride to reduce redness — an ingredient you’ll also see in some over-the-counter cold medicines thanks to its ability to shrink blood vessels and reduce swelling. In addition to targeting redness, Clear Eyes offers “multi-symptom” relief from “itchiness, grittiness, burning, and watery eyes” via ingredients like glycerin, which are also used in many lubricating drops.
The Clear Eyes bottle (left) features a built-in filter and a smaller opening than other options.
We were impressed with Clear Eyes’ packaging. The product comes in a multi-dose bottle with a patented filtration tip that is designed to keep bacteria out, allowing it to be much cheaper than individually packaged preservative-free vials (it’s about $9 for a 0.3-ounce bottle). Our testers did find the bottle harder to squeeze than most others we tried, and some noticed a very minor burning sensation for a few seconds after applying the drops to their eyes — probably a reaction to the anti-redness vasoconstrictor. Nixing the red apparently comes at a cost.
Best for Contact Lens-Wearers
Refresh was the only brand of contact lens drops we tested whose formula was safe for both hard and soft lenses. But even more than its versatility, we liked its gentle-on-the-eyes preservative. Brand-named Purite, it’s another oxidative preservative that dissolves on contact with light. This means it barely makes contact with your eye before breaking down — preferable to even the mildest of chemical preservatives, like the edetate disodium in Renu Multi-Plus Lubricating and Rewetting Drops.
Our testers thought the Refresh drops felt slightly thicker in their eyes compared to other contact drops, but there was no irritation — just cooling moisture. The application was easy too, unlike Opti-Free Express Rewetting Drops, which came out in a stream rather than drop by drop. A 0.4-ounce bottle runs about $9.
Did You Know?
An “all-natural” eye drop doesn’t really exist.
While the chemical-sounding ingredient lists of many standard eye drops sounds scary, those ingredients are what allow the drops to live up to their claims. Dr. Hauser told us, “I don’t prescribe homeopathic drops (which is not to say they are without merit). My clinical experience has been with artificial tears that are formulated through research to provide the greatest comfort and lubrication for patients.”
If you’re curious, two well-known homeopathic brands, Similasan and Boiron, offer a range of drops that claim to treat everything from itchiness to dryness and redness, but Dr. Evans pointed out that “as recurrently proven by multiple studies, homeopathy has no greater health improvements than a placebo.”
Understanding the cause of your symptoms is the key to ideal relief.
Dry, irritated eyes can result from a host of factors, including allergies, medications, tear film imbalance, and straightforward “computer strain” (a function of decreased blinking when you’re focusing on the computer screen). Without a diagnosis, you’re largely confined to trial-and-error when it comes to choosing eye drops, since it’s hard to be sure whether you’re addressing the root issue.
The closest thing to an exception is simply lubricating your eyes with aqueous artificial tears — like our top “general use” drop, Blink Tears. If that doesn’t work, you may want to check in with your doctor about next steps.