Count me among those who need glasses or contacts to see clearly. I do feel some envy for my more eagle-eyed friends with 20/20 vision, but typically this doesn’t cause much of a problem in everyday life. If I want to wear glasses, I wear my glasses. If I want to wear contacts, I wear my contacts. Usually that’s about the extent of how complicated it gets.
But, snorkeling isn’t everyday life (in the best way possible) and a variety of new factors like oceans, snorkel masks, and plenty of other things come into play. Usually, I wouldn’t think much about it, but since snorkeling isn’t everyday life, it’s smart to look into how these factors might affect my eyes to make sure that I can stay safe and healthy.
Contacts are a super easy go-to if I want to live life acting more like I don’t use glasses, and they let me do simple things like wear sunglasses, or, at least in theory, snorkel masks.
But, can you snorkel with contacts? While snorkeling with soft contacts is possible, medical professionals do not recommend it due to the chance of eye infection should water with microbial growth touch your contact lens. Hard and gas-permeable contacts are also not recommended for snorkeling because they can stick to your eye or scratch your cornea when under increased water pressure.
That kind of sounds like a bummer. But, let’s look at what all of this really means, and what you need to know if you wear soft contacts, hard contacts, or contacts of the gas-permeable variety and want to be able to see well while snorkeling.
One of the tricky things around considering wearing contact lenses while snorkeling is that people do definitely do it, and wearing soft contact lenses (not hard or gas-permeable contacts) seems to rarely cause issues while snorkeling [source]. That might make it seem like wearing contacts in the water is more than fine and an open-and-shut case, but there’s more to the story.
Pretty much all water is home to various sorts of microbes and bacteria. Generally, these microbes and bacteria don’t cause us much trouble, and when it comes to the eyes, our natural system does a pretty good job of flushing most anything out that might make its way in. This is a daily occurrence even during something like showering.
But, when you wear contacts, that provides a foreign surface for microbes to grab onto. One microbe sometimes present in water is something called Ancanthamoeba, which, if it’s able to grab onto a contact and stay in your eye, can cause a really severe type of eye infection called Acanthamoeba keratitis. It’s super painful and can even result in permanent vision loss or even the need for a corneal transplant, so it’s a big deal. [Source]
And, it really doesn’t take much, in theory. The possibility is there for it to happen with even just a few drops of ocean water making its way into a snorkel mask.
Even the United States’ Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and plenty of other agencies recommend that contacts never be worn when you’re anywhere in water; swimming, showering, using a hot tub, and yes — snorkeling. Serious problems are rare, but they do happen and it’s just smart to avoid the possibility altogether. [Source]
So, to be safe, soft contacts are out. Are hard or gas-permeable contacts any different? Yes and no.
Hard and gas-permeable contacts work similarly to soft contacts in that they also do provide something for microbes to latch onto if they come in contact with your eyes through water. So, that should be enough to rule out hard and gas-permeable contacts as well. But, there’s more, too.
Some people are comfortable taking the risk of wearing contacts while snorkeling, no matter how strongly it is advised against by medical professionals. But, for those people, they still absolutely need to avoid the hard and gas-permeable variety.
If you wear hard or gas-permeable lenses and dive underwater, the added pressure of the water above you can interact with the lenses in a way that may cause pain, blurry vision, the contacts getting stuck to your eye, scratching your cornea, or plenty of other problems that either just hurt or can even injure your eye. [Source]
So, hard and gas-permeable lenses have two strikes against them for snorkeling. No go.
Some optometrists, ophthalmologists, and other doctors do recognize that, while contacts should be avoided in the water if at all possible, some people may not have that option. [Source]
In this case, always make sure that you have an excellent snorkel mask for you, which is ultimately one that creates a tight seal with your face. If you have any in-mask exposure to water along the way, make sure to remove your contacts as soon as possible and disinfect them for at least 24 hours if you want to use them again.
Removing your contacts and disinfecting them for 24 hours is also generally recommended each time you finish snorkeling even if it didn’t seem like you had any water exposure, just to be safe. So, it’s a great idea to take a contacts case and solution along with your glasses to the beach or boat with you.
And, since we’re talking about health, here’s your friendly (and serious) reminder to make sure that you have travel medical insurance that covers snorkeling in case any sort of snorkeling-related injury happens, eyes or otherwise. Not all travel medical providers cover snorkeling, so check out our article on which ones do at Does Travel Insurance Cover Snorkeling? 3 Critical Realities.
So, it sounds like contacts should be avoided altogether in water if at all possible. So, what now? Can you snorkel with glasses?
Since this is a topic near and dear to my heart (i.e., I love snorkeling and my vision isn’t amazing), we’ve also written an entire separate guide on how to see well while snorkeling if you need some sort of prescription eyewear to see well.
Fortunately, there are lots of options available for vision-correcting snorkel masks from things like drop-in lenses, integrated lenses, bonded lenses, and plenty of others. There are also some DIY hacks with a pair of glasses that you can use to get your snorkel mask ready for sharp underwater vision.
There are a lot of different things to compare and contrast in terms of ease of use, cost, etc., and we’ve made sure to sort them all out for you. So, if you’re here, partially squinting at this article, check out Can You Snorkel With Glasses? 7 Great Ways to See Underwater.
The Deep Dive
Snorkeling with contacts sounds super easy. And, on one hand, it is. But, there are deceptive risks and warnings from doctors and governmental agencies across the board that you should heed to avoid injury to your eyes.
Who could have figured that where I wear my contacts could get so serious? The reality isn’t ideal, but our eyes are really important and their health allows us to have great snorkeling experiences for a long time to come, so real talk is important.
The risks outweigh the conveniences of being able to snorkel with contacts (again, your eyes are really important!) But, fortunately, there are a lot of other good options to be able to see well underwater which are well worth a little time and effort to be able to see the magic of the undersea world sharply and healthfully.
Check out some of our other how-tos on snorkeling safely, and getting set up with the right gear along the way below: