Field of Science

Allergy sufferers beware! These eyedrops are a scam.

Spring allergy season is upon us, and plants are bursting into leaf and bloom, spreading pollen everywhere. For some of us, this otherwise beautiful season is a time to stock up on antihistamines and tissues, and we try our best to stay indoors.

When pollen causes red, itchy eyes, we look for eyedrops to provide some relief. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and has a list of eyedrops here that includes products such as Zaditor®, Alaway®, and others. These eyedrops contain real medicine that can soothe itchy eyes and reduce your allergy symptoms.

So I was in the pharmacy section of my local grocery store, Giant, looking for eye relief, but they were sold out of Zaditor. Right next to the empty slot, though, I saw a row of other eyedrops from a company called Similisan®, and I took the picture shown here.
Homeopathic eye drops at Giant Foods in Baltimore.
Looks legitimate, right? Each box has a cross on it (apparently intended to resemble the logo of the Red Cross), and they are in the pharmacy section. I picked up the box labeled "Allergy Eye Relief" to take a closer look, though, and saw the word "homeopathic" near the bottom of the box.

Uh oh. It turns out that these products are little more than very, very expensive bottles of sterile water. For $9.99 you get 10 ml of water that contains several extracts–in vanishingly small amounts–for which there is no evidence whatsoever that they have any effect on allergies. Similisan's allergy relief bottle contains:

  • Honeybee
  • Eyebright (a plant)
  • Sabadilla lily (another plant)

Yes, that's right: they grind up honeybees and put them in the eyedrops. The (wacky) idea is that because bee stings cause allergic reactions, a tiny bit of ground-up bee in solution will prevent those reactions. This flawed principle is the basis for all of homeopathy, which has stuck around for 200 years despite the complete absence of evidence that it works.

As I've written before, homeopathic drugs get a free pass on regulation, thanks to Congress. Homeopaths will tell you that their drugs are regulated by the FDA (they often make this claim in the comments on my articles - just watch), but they're not. All the FDA can do is check to see if the products contain the ingredients listed on the label. Unlike real drugs, though, the FDA does not and cannot require that these "drugs" have any effect whatsoever.

I don't think I need to say more about ground-up bees, but what about those other two ingredients? Eyebright is a plant that has "little or no evidence of efficacy" for eye infections. Its use dates back to the ancient Greeks, and has an interesting history:
"Eyebright was used as early as Theophrastus and Dioscorides, who prescribed infusions for topical application in the treatment of eye infections. This in large part was due to the similarity of the “bloodshot” petals to irritated eyes."
That's right: the flower petals look like irritated eyes, and this was enough to get the early Greeks to try them out as a treatment. Needless to say, the physical appearance of a plant has nothing to do with its efficacy as a medicine. (But try telling that to a homeopath.)

Sabadilla, the third ingredient, is a plant extract used as an insecticide, with an active ingredient called veratrine. As Laura Pottorff from Colorado State University explains, "its dust can be highly irritating to the eyes." Therein lies the homeopath's motivation for using sabadilla in eyedrops: homeopaths believe that a substance that irritates the eyes will somehow soothe the eyes if it is sufficiently diluted.

Similisan claims that their 3 homeopathic eyedrops will relieve itching, burning, watering, and redness in your eyes. The box just says it's "manufactured according to homeopathic principles," but doesn't explain that it hasn't been shown to be effective. You have to go to their website to discover that
"The uses of our products are in compliance with official Homeopathic Compendia. They were not the subject of approved applications reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration prior to marketing." 
In other words, they've never presented any evidence that these things actually work.

One can only hope that the sabadilla in Similisan's eye drops is sufficiently diluted; if not, you're putting insecticide in your eyes. The package says that all three ingredients are at 6X dilution, which in homeopathic jargon means 1 part in 1 million. The problem is that homeopathic substances have no real standards, so we don't know how much of the active ingredients were in the original mixture before dilution.

I was curious to see if Whole Foods Market sold the same stuff, and not surprisingly they do, in their special section devoted to homeopathy. (I've written about WFM and their love affair with homeopathy before.) The only difference is that Similisan costs more at Whole Foods, $11.99 to $14.99 depending on which flavor you buy (check out the photo below).

Homeopathic eye drops at Whole Foods Market. How much
money do you want to waste on a tiny water bottle?
Homeopathic eye drops are nothing more than really, really expensive water. At $10 for 10 ml, that works out to $1000 per liter. Similisan proudly states that it's sold at a wide variety of U.S. retailers and pharmacies, including CVS, Kroger, Publix, RiteAid, Safeway, Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and Wegmans. Seems like they're doing quite a good business selling their $1000/liter water.

Consumers beware: the eyedrops you're looking at, even in the Pharmacy section of the store, might be expensive, ineffective make-believe medicine. Make sure to read the package closely; the fake medicine is sometimes right next to the real stuff, and the packaging is designed to fool you.

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