Gas Permeable Contact Lenses (RGP Or GP Contacts)

By Gary Heiting, OD

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 On This Page: Benefits of RGP lenses Astigmatism, presbyopia, keratoconus Limitations of gas permeable lenses

Gas permeable contact lenses are rigid lenses made of durable plastic that transmits oxygen. These lenses also are called GP lenses, rigid gas permeable lenses, RGP lenses and oxygen permeable lenses.

GP contact lenses are rigid, but they shouldn't be confused with old-fashioned hard contact lenses, which are now essentially obsolete. Hard contact lenses were made of a type of plastic called poly methyl methacrylate (PMMA). Before 1971, when soft contact lenses were introduced, just about all contact lenses were made from PMMA, which is also called acrylic or acrylic glass, as well being referred to by the trade names Plexiglas, Lucite, Perspex and others.

PMMA has excellent optical properties and was developed as a lightweight and shatter-resistant alternative to glass for many applications. But it is impermeable to oxygen and other gasses, and the clear front surface of the eye (cornea) needs a significant supply of oxygen to stay healthy.

Soft lenses (top): Soft and silicone hydrogel lenses are thin, pliable lenses that cover the entire cornea and a small portion of the sclera.GP lenses (bottom): Gas permeable contacts are rigid lenses that float on a layer of tears and typically cover about 75 percent of the cornea.

Since oxygen cannot pass through a PMMA contact lens, the only way for this vital element to reach the cornea was for tears to wash underneath the lens with each blink. In order for this blink-induced, tear-pumping action to occur, PMMA lenses had to be made relatively small in size. Also, there had to be a significant gap between the edge of the lens and the surface of the cornea.

These design characteristics made many people very aware of PMMA lenses on their eyes or caused discomfort that made wearing the lenses impossible. In some cases, these features also caused problems with PMMA lenses popping off the eye, especially during sports.

What Makes Gas Permeable Lenses Different?

Gas permeable contacts were first introduced in the late 1970s; they are actually a newer technology than soft lenses. Most GP lenses incorporate silicone, which makes them more flexible than PMMA.

And silicone is oxygen permeable, so oxygen can pass directly through GP lenses to keep the cornea healthy without having to rely solely on oxygen-containing tears to be pumped under the lens with each blink.

In fact, modern rigid gas permeable contacts allow more oxygen to reach the cornea than most soft contact lenses (although some silicone hydrogel soft lenses are comparable to GP lenses in oxygen transmission).

Because gas permeable contact lenses allow oxygen to pass through them, GP lenses can be made larger than PMMA hard contact lenses, and the edges of GP lenses can be fitted closer to the surface of the eye. These design changes make modern rigid GP lenses more comfortable and easier to get used to than old-fashioned hard contacts and also keep the lenses more securely on the eye when worn during sports and other activities.

RGP lenses also provide better vision, durability, and deposit resistance than soft contact lenses. And because they last longer than soft lenses, they can be less expensive in the long term.

Adapting To RGP Lenses

So why doesn't everyone wear gas permeable lenses? Primarily because soft lenses are instantly comfortable, and GP lenses require an adaptation period before they are as comfortable as soft contacts.

Some other downsides of RGP lenses are discussed below.

GPs are made from permeable materials that allow oxygen to reach your eye.

The Benefits Of RGP Lenses

Gas permeable contact lenses offer some outstanding benefits over soft lenses. For one, because GP lenses are made from a firm plastic material, they retain their shape when you blink, which tends to provide sharper vision than pliable soft lenses.

GP lenses also are extremely durable. Although you can break them (for instance, if you step on them), you can't tear them easily, like soft lenses.

And they're made of materials that don't contain water (as soft contact lenses do), so protein and lipids from your tears do not adhere to GP lenses as readily as they do to soft lenses.

With a little care, gas permeable contact lenses can last for years, as long as you don't require a prescription change.

Niches Where GP Contact Lenses Excel

Though they are less popular than soft lenses, gas permeable contacts are the best choice for many individuals, including:

BRACES FOR EYES?

Some eye care practitioners use RGP lenses to perform ortho-k, a nonsurgical procedure intended to produce good vision without glasses or contacts. Learn more about ortho-k.

  • People who are very discerning and are willing to go through a period of adaptation to contact lens wear to achieve the sharpest vision possible.
  • Some people with astigmatism for whom soft contacts don't produce the desired visual acuity. [Read about contacts for astigmatism.]
  • People with presbyopia, because GP lenses come in numerous bifocal and multifocal designs. Different bifocal designs work well for different people, so having many choices is a real plus. Also, many people find that the best combination of near and distance acuity is obtained with GP bifocals.
  • People who have a condition called keratoconus, where the cornea is cone-shaped and causes extreme visual distortion.
  • People who need contact lenses after refractive surgery.

Gas permeable contacts also are used for ortho-k, where specially designed GP lenses are worn during sleep to reshape the cornea and improve vision.

Limitations Of Gas Permeable Lenses

Unlike soft lenses, to achieve maximum comfort with gas permeable contacts, you need to wear them regularly (though not necessarily every day).

If you don't wear your soft lenses for a week, they'll still be comfortable when you put them on a week later. But if you don't wear your GP lenses for a week, you'll probably need some time to get comfortable again.

Also, GP lenses are smaller in size than soft lenses, which means there is a greater risk of gas permeable lenses dislodging from the eye during sports or other activities.

And because gas permeable lenses are designed to move on the eye when the wearer blinks, there is a higher risk of dust and debris getting under the lenses, causing discomfort or a possible abrasion to the cornea.

Finally, GP lenses do require care, since they are reused for one year or more.

Hybrid Contacts: The Best Of Both Worlds?

Since comfort is the primary barrier to greater popularity of gas permeable lenses, hybrid contact lenses are an excellent choice for people who want the clarity of a GP lens and wearing comfort that more closely resembles that of soft lenses.

SynergEyes hybrid contact lenses have an RGP center and a soft outer skirt.

Hybrid contact lenses have a central optical zone that is made of a gas permeable lens material, surrounded by a peripheral fitting zone made of silicone hydrogel or regular hydrogel soft lens material.

SynergEyes currently is the sole manufacturer of FDA-approved hybrid contact lenses sold in the United States. The company makes a variety of hybrid lenses sold under the Duette, UltraHealth and SynergEyes brands, including progressive and multifocal hybrid lenses for the correction of presbyopia and designs for the correction of keratoconus and other corneal problems.

For More Information

For more information about gas permeable lenses, visit the GP contacts educational website  provided by the Contact Lens Manufacturers Association.

Also, consult with your eye care practitioner and ask if gas permeable contacts (or perhaps hybrid contact lenses) are the best choice for your lifestyle and visual needs.


GP Contacts vs. Soft Contacts:  Weigh the Difference

Unless you already wear GP contact lenses, you may not know about their many advantages over soft contacts — including disposable soft contacts. Here's a comparison chart to help you see how well these lenses perform in a number of key areas:




GP Contacts Soft Lenses
Oxygen Delivery

GP contacts are made of special materials that allow your eyes to breathe. Oxygen is absolutely necessary to the health of your eyes.

Some soft contact lenses just don't allow enough oxygen to get through to your eyes. This can lead to corneal problems.

Visual Acuity

GP contacts have superior optics. Since they're firm, they retain their shape better when you blink, so your eyes don't have to refocus as much. And they are superb for astigmatism or bifocal needs.

When you blink, soft lenses are more likely to distort; your eyes must then refocus, which can be annoying if you're reading, or detrimental to your performance if you're driving or participating in sports.

Initial Comfort

GP contact lenses require a short adaptation period.

Soft lenses are comfortable from just about the moment you put them on.

Long-Term Comfort

GP contacts require almost no water to maintain their shape, so they won't pull the moisture away from your eyes.

After a few hours of wear, water-absorbing soft lenses can dry out your eyes, making them itchy and tired.

Durability

GP contacts are made of a firm plastic, so they don't scratch or tear. And they stay clear over time.

Made of a gel-like plastic, soft lenses are easy to tear. And protein deposit buildup clouds the lenses over time.

Deposit Resistance

Their smooth finish and lack of water retention mean they harbor fewer protein deposits from your tear film. This is healthier and more comfortable for your eyes.

Since soft lenses absorb more of your tears, they are more likely to contain protein deposits from your tears and harbor bacteria. More deposits are scratchy, too.

Value

GP contacts are much less expensive to maintain; also, they last longer so you don't have to spend as much on replacements.

Soft lenses require significant spending on cleaning supplies; and they don't last as long, so you buy new lenses more often.

As you can see, initial comfort is the only area where soft lenses excel over GP contacts. But once you get used to them, GP contacts are comfortable, more durable, easier and less expensive to care for, healthier, and provide crisper vision.

Why take the shortcut? By investing a little time and effort in adapting to your GP contacts, you'll be rewarded with a lifetime of healthy and hassle-free contact lens wear.

Next, go to:

There are so many different contact lens options available today that the choices can become confusing!

Catagories of contact lenses

There are two broad categories of contact lenses, however: soft contact lenses (SCLs) and rigid gas permeable lenses (RGPs). Each type of lens has advantages and disadvantages.

Soft contact lenses

Advantages of soft contact lenses

Soft contact lenses tend to be very comfortable initially. They drape over the eye, so patients don’t feel them much when blinking. SCLs tend to stay on the eye without becoming dislodged or displaced. Many people find disposable SCLs (lenses are worn for a specific period of time – from one day to several months - and then thrown away) very convenient and like knowing they have back-up lenses in case something happens to a lens.

Disadvantages of soft contact lenses

Disadvantages of soft contact lenses include the risk of tearing a lens and less oxygen getting to the cornea than with RGPs. Some patients experience more dryness with SCLs.

Rigid gas permeable contact lenses

RGPs, on the other hand, allow more oxygen to the cornea by the tears flowing under the lenses. They provide very crisp, clear vision, and often people with mild to moderate dry eye find they can wear RGPs longer and more comfortably than SCLs. Some studies have shown that children fitted with RGPs tend to have a more stable prescription than children do in glasses.

Differences in rigid gas permeable lenses compared to soft contact lenses

Rigid gas permeable lenses are smaller in diameter than SCLs and are felt more initially by the eyelids as you blink over the lenses. This lid sensation decreases quickly with time, and the final comfort of SCLs and RGPs is very similar. RGPs may become dislodged from the eye or pushed off to the side more easily than SCLs.

Find the best lens for you

Telling your eye care provider about your visual needs and the types of activities you enjoy will help him or her select the best lens option for you.


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