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There are two basic eye color changing surgeries, neither of which has been approved in the United States.
One procedure involves an implant that covers the iris and makes your eye color look lighter or different. This surgery is not available in the U.S. It is considered dangerous due to its side effects.
The other eye color surgery is still in clinical trials, but it theoretically uses a low-energy laser to remove brown tint so your eye becomes blue.
While both operations can change how your eye color looks, they have significant risks, including vision loss or chronic health problems like glaucoma. Instead of undergoing an expensive cosmetic surgery that could cause blindness, work with an optometrist to get fitted for color-changing contact lenses.
What Is Eye Color Surgery?
Genes have long determined eye color, but over the past several decades, new ways to cosmetically change eye color have been developed. Some of these are temporary, but some methods for changing your eye color involve surgery, so they can be permanent or semi-permanent.
For example, many women wear different shades of eye shadow that complement their eye color and enhance it. Bringing attention to the eyes with makeup has been a practice across cultures for thousands of years.
Much more recently, different types of colored contact lenses allow you to change your eye color. This can be done in a subtle way, with some brightening features or hints of color in a soft prescription lens, or eye color can be changed completely with an opaque lens.
Many people want to permanently change the color of their eyes. There are surgical approaches, including implants and lasers that can lighten darker eyes, but these are very risky. Vision loss is one of the biggest risks of these cosmetic procedures.
Types of Eye Color Cosmetic Surgery
There are two basic approaches to changing your eye color with a surgical procedure. Doctors in the United States do not offer these procedures, however, because they are very dangerous. People who want to permanently change their eye color must fly to another country for this risky operation, which can leave you blind.
The two surgeries that might change your eye color are:
- Implants. Iris implant surgery was developed originally as a treatment for serious eye injuries and medical conditions like aniridia, where the entire iris is not in the eye, or coloboma, where part of the iris is missing. In these cases, the individual may not be able to see well anyway. The surgery is to improve quality of life by reducing the risk that others will react to the defect. During the implant surgery, the doctor makes a small cut in the cornea and then places a silicon-based artificial iris over the area where the natural iris would be located. The silicon device is unfolded in the eye to cover the iris area, beneath the cornea, which holds it in place. Like other types of minor cosmetic eye surgery, such as LASIK, you receive a localized anesthetic, but you will be awake during the procedure. Research has shown that people who have functioning, healthy irises but receive iris implants are at a higher risk of complications, like partial blindness, caused by the operation.
There is little evidence showing that iris implant surgery is effective or safe as a cosmetic procedure. No regulatory agency from the United States government has evaluated it for safety, so no optometrists or eye surgeons in this country offer it.
- Eye color laser surgery. This controversial procedure has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is still undergoing clinical trials at Stroma Medical Corporation, which patented a laser-based operation on the iris in 2009. Theoretically, a low-energy laser can remove pigment from the iris to brighten the eye’s color, typically from brown to blue. According to Stroma’s testing, the procedure uses a low-intensity laser on the iris for about 20 seconds to destroy the stroma, or little fibers in the iris that absorb light. Once a layer has been destroyed, the body will naturally remove it. The procedure is short, but the body requires several weeks to remove the disrupted tissue. While side effects associated with this procedure are not well studied or documented, ophthalmologists criticize the operation for putting potential patients at higher risk of developing glaucoma. This procedure only changes brown eyes to blue eyes. It cannot change other eye colors to darker colors or a non-blue color.
Eye Color Surgery Side Effects
You should see an ophthalmologist or eye specialist as soon as possible if you experience any complications after undergoing eye color surgery. Any partial loss of vision warrants a swift evaluation because it may signal any common but serious, sight-threatening eye conditions or diseases.
With early diagnosis and treatment, your eye doctor can help prevent manageable vision complications from progressing into permanent blindness. The first step to reverse or halt vision loss after a procedure is usually removing the cosmetic iris implant.
Here are other iris surgery complications that require immediate medical/surgical intervention if they occur:
- Injury to the cornea: Corneal implant may correct vision problems from severe trauma to this highly sensitive part of the eye.
- Swelling of the iris (uveitis): See an ophthalmologist if your iris or the areas around it swell and become painful. The eye specialist may prescribe medication, such as antibiotics, to control the infection and prevent vision loss.
- Swelling of the cornea: The cornea may swell after accumulating fluid because of eye surgery. General non-surgical treatment for pain and swelling may resolve the problem.
- Elevated eye pressure: If an eye exam reveals fluid pressure above the normal range, you may have or be at risk for developing glaucoma. Your ophthalmologist will consider another surgery as a possible intervention.
- Cataracts: These may develop gradually and cause blurred vision. Surgical cataract extraction with artificial lens implant is a common remedy for the eye condition.
- Iris abnormalities: Some patients develop iris complications like atrophy (an out-of-position pupil) or cysts after surgery. Your doctor may prefer low-energy laser burns to resolve the condition before implanting an artificial iris.
Note that in 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved the CustomFlex silicone iris for medical use only. While this implant can be customized to suit your eye size and color, it’s not meant for cosmetic reasons.
If you happen to have cosmetic iris implant surgery abroad, you should follow up with a U.S.-based ophthalmologist once you return. A specialist will run eye tests to spot any vision-threatening complications that may exist, even if you’re not aware of them or even if they don’t bother you.
Do These Surgeries Really Change Your Eye Color?
It is normal for your eye color to change a little bit, gradually, over the course of your life. If the color of your iris changes suddenly, it could be a medical emergency. See an eye specialist as soon as possible.
The outcome of the laser procedure will permanently change your eye color to blue. The implant, on the other hand, does not change the color of your iris but instead blocks it with a different, usually lighter color device. While this technically does not change your eye color, it changes what people see of your eye color. However, unlike the laser iris procedure, the implant can cause your pupils to be unable to adjust in darker conditions, so you could at least lose your low-light vision, in addition to experiencing other problems.
Are There Alternatives to Risky Eye Color Surgery?
Changing your eye color with surgery is not a viable option. You are more likely to suffer severe eye damage leading to vision loss than you are to get the eye color you want.
Instead of undergoing a risky procedure, work with a qualified optometrist to be fitted for color-changing contact lenses. It is important to work with a medical specialist rather than ordering contact lenses online or through a cosmetic outlet. This way, your optometrist can monitor for problems like scratches, inflammation, or infection, which may damage your eyes.
Any procedure or device you consider for your eyes should be discussed with an optometrist or ophthalmologist first. A medical professional can help you understand your individual risks.
Eye Color Change FAQs
Here are some of the frequently asked questions about eye color change procedures and outcomes:
Is the color change permanent?
With laser surgery, you can permanently alter your eye color. You may not need to repeat the laser procedure if successful the first time.
However, no U.S. regulatory authority has tested and confirmed the cosmetic procedure’s safety and efficacy. As such, there’s no guarantee you’ll always get the eye color change you prefer.
An artificial iris implant will also have a permanent color, although it doesn’t change the actual natural color of your eyes.
Is it safe to travel to another country for surgery?
Getting any medical care abroad always carries a risk of developing health complications, depending on several factors. If you’re considering traveling overseas for eye surgery, here are some valid safety concerns to address beforehand:
- Undergoing a medical or cosmetic procedure that’s unavailable or unapproved in the U.S. can put you at risk. The FDA is notoriously more stringent on surgery approvals, which is why some procedures (for anything) are more available overseas than at home. But you can put your health in danger if you aren’t able to research your foreign surgeon (and the surgical practice) or understand all the inherent risks.
- In some countries, care givers, including surgeons, don’t have to meet the same standards of training, licensing, certification, and credentialing as their American counterparts. As always, even in the U.S., there no guarantee of quality care or surgical success.
- Some regions of the world experience higher levels of antibiotic resistance than others. This can be a problem, because most patients need to take antibiotics after eye surgery to prevent infection.
- Speak with your local ophthalmologist about access to continuing care before flying overseas for a procedure that’s unavailable in the United States.
Implants Can Change Eye Color, but Are They Worth the Risk? (September 2015). CBS Los Angeles.
Laser Procedure Can Turn Brown Eyes Blue. (March 2015). CNN Business.
Cosmetic Iris Implants Carry a Risk of Permanent Eye Damage, Vision Loss. (October 29, 2014). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
Iris Implant Surgery to Change Eye Color Can Be Dangerous, American Academy of Ophthalmology Warns. (October 31, 2014). American Academy of Ophthalmology. Date Fetched: August 14, 2021
Complications of Cosmetic Artificial Iris Implantation and Post Explantation Outcomes. (January 5, 2021). American Journal of Ophthalmology. Date Fetched: August 14, 2021
Medical Tourism: Travel to Another Country for Medical Care. (April 19, 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Date Fetched: August 14, 2021
FDA Approves First Artificial Iris. (May 30, 2018). U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Date Fetched: August 14, 2021