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Coloring eyes in pastel hues

Local colored contact lens market grows in international popularity

"It’s like wearing makeup not just around the eyes, but also on the eyes,” said Kim Ji-hye, an office worker in her mid-20s, talking about colored contact lenses.

Kim has been wearing colored contacts for more than 10 years. She first tried them on when she was in middle school. Like others of her age at the time, she used to wear cheap contacts and did not care much about hygiene or sanitation.

“I was reckless. Now I only wear one-day colored contact lenses just on special days, to highlight my style,” Kim said. “I know that they are not very healthy for my eyes, but still, I cannot give up on them.”

Kim is one among many devotees of colored contact lenses here. The lenses are popular across women of various age groups, from teenagers to 20s and 30s, and also among some men. 

Acuvue Define color contact lenses (Johnson & Johnson Korea)
Acuvue Define color contact lenses (Johnson & Johnson Korea)

The sensation started in the early 2000s, when “ulzzang” rose to stardom. The Korean term refers to good-looking people who became online personalities through community websites at the time. Many of them, men and women alike, wore colored contact lenses to complement their hip styles.

It was trendy for young students to buy colored contact lenses of a similar style, to be like the ulzzang personalities. Like Kim, the students searched for the cheapest options, barely minding hygiene or health issues.

Some went extreme, even sharing the contact lenses. To create a more vivid look, they layered them. It became a social issue, with the actions resulting in eye inflammation or failing eyesight. In response, many schools banned colored contact lenses.

The popularity, however, did not die out. Rather, it grew stronger with the rise of K-pop stars. Idol stars wear colored contact lenses on the stage or in photo shoots to create different moods.

Walking through busy districts of Seoul, one will run into colored contact lens shops on seemingly every corner. These are different from an average optician’s shop, only dealing with contacts and especially the colored ones.

The insides and the outsides of the shops are filled with photos of celebrities who represent the brands. Only big-name stars can rise to become spokespersons, such as Suzy, Twice, Wanna One and Black Pink currently. 

Black Pink (O-Lens)
Black Pink (O-Lens)
Black Pink’s Jennie and Jisoo are models for O-Lens (O-Lens)
Black Pink’s Jennie and Jisoo are models for O-Lens (O-Lens)
Black Pink’s Jennie and Jisoo are models for O-Lens (O-Lens)
Black Pink’s Jennie and Jisoo are models for O-Lens (O-Lens)

Hani of EXID is one of the stars on the list, too. Pulling off chic makeup looks with her contact lenses, she has become a style icon. Entering her name in a search engine, keywords related to contacts lenses soon pop up. Hani eventually became a contracted model for a local colored contacts brand.

O-lens is one of the established names in the colored contact lens market. An affiliate under local eyewear brand Star Vision, the franchise has more than 160 branches across the nation and more overseas, such as China, Hong Kong and Dubai.

It produces more than 600 varieties of colored contact lenses. The lenses are categorized by their usage period, from a single day or two weeks to a month, or even three months. The color and design are limitless. Prices differ from 5,000 won ($4.45) to 50,000 won. 

O-Lens store in Hongdae, western Seoul (By Im Eun-byel / The Korea Herald)
O-Lens store in Hongdae, western Seoul (By Im Eun-byel / The Korea Herald)

Kim says the color contact lens market is sensitive to trends.

“Ten years ago, vivid contacts with a large diameter were popular, the ones that really stand out were a hit. But nowadays, people prefer something more natural that slightly lightens up or darkens the mood,” she said. “Contact lenses worn by the hottest stars are the most popular.”

Even foreign tourists are attracted to the pastel-hued contacts. A seller at a color contacts shop in Hongdae area said that 70 percent of customers come from abroad, mainly from China and also some Southeast Asian countries.

Though one might expect difficulties in buying contact lenses in a foreign country, the process is simple. Pick the design you want and write down your prescription. It’s like a convenience store. Also, many vendors at the shop speak English and Chinese.

Jenny Yau is a 25-year-old tourist from Hong Kong. She was strolling around the Hongdae area recently, shopping for colored contact lenses.

“There are Korean contact lens shops in Hong Kong, too. I am used to wearing Korean lenses. Now that I am here, I thought, it would be cheaper to buy them in Korea,” Yau said.

The cheaper price is an attraction for many visitors.

Koh Wei En is a 22-year-old exchange student in Seoul from Singapore. Attending Hanyang University in eastern Seoul for a year, she went to a shop in Hongdae to buy colored contact lenses.

“Korean contacts are popular in Singapore. Compared with American or Japanese ones, they are much cheaper. So I used to order them online,” she said. “But now that I am in Korea, it is even cheaper. I am now buying the lenses in stocks.”

But the convenience does lead to some risks. In 2016, some contact lenses sold here were pulled off shelves as they were found to be unfit for sale. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety ran a test on 17 products, and only 10 passed the test.

Customers are advised to carefully purchase and use contact lenses. The current law includes colored contact lenses as medical devices, as the lens directly contacts the human eye. It is recommended to see an optometrist or optician to buy colored contact lens.

By Im Eun-byel (