As the medical establishment’s understanding of the physiology, symptomatology, and treatment of dry eye disease is continually refined, the OTC eye care product industry is responding with a broad selection of targeted solutions.
With this increased specialization, and with the general trend towards a more competitive market, consumers now have dozens of over-the-counter eye drop products and brands to choose from.
More options and medical jargon means more questions on the consumer end, which is why we are comparing four of the most prominent brands in the eye drop industry.
How do Rain, Retaine, Systane, and Refresh eye drops stack up against each other?
This critical comparison will examine the product offering, ingredient lists, and cost of each of these industry frontrunners to help you enter the proper frame of mind for a smarter purchase.
The central theme throughout all of Rain’s messaging is focused on a gentle, preservative-free eye drop formulation that actually works for dry eye disease and associated symptoms.
Rain’s eye drops are moisturizing tears formulated to lubricate the eye and soothe irritation – here’s a closer look at how.
How Rain Drops Treat Dry Eye
Using carboxymethylcellulose sodium (0.5%), or CMC, a research-proven compound for safely lubricating the ocular surface, Rain eye drops attack dry eye disease symptoms with minimal risk of adverse reactions. CMC has been evidenced to facilitate a healthier tear film breakup time, meaning it can provide more sustainable benefits beyond instant relief from that itchy, irritated feeling. Here are the inactive ingredients:
Calcium chloride, hydrochloric acid, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, purified water, sodium chloride, sodium hydroxide, and sodium lactate.
Rain’s Preservative-Free Formula for Red, Dry Eyes
In the current context of the eye drop industry, Rain eye drops are just as valuable for what they do not contain – harsh preservatives and other additives – as for what they do contain.
Though it’s obviously not recommended, you could actually drink these 100% preservative-free drops because they are that gentle.
Paradoxically, OTC eye drop products from the vast majority of competitors who do use preservatives can actually worsen dry eye disease as the body responds to these foreign irritants.
Finally, Rain doubles down on this commitment to providing the industry’s safest OTC eye drop with their blow-fill-seal process for sterilizing containers.
Where to Buy and How Much?
Rain eye drops are available exclusively on the company website. Each box contains 30 single-use containers. Even for more competitive brands, savings scale up rather aggressively with incremental increases in quantity. Here is the current pricing structure:
- 1 box: $21.95
- Buy 2, get one free: $48.99
- Buy 3, get two free: $69.95
Focusing on lipid replenishment, which aims to address the evaporative component of dry eye disease (meibomian gland dysfunction) as reviewed, Retaine’s Complete Dry Eye Relief drops also utilize a preservative-free formulation. The brand also sells HPMC (hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, or artificial tears) lubricant eye drops and a nighttime ointment for severe dry eye.
In the case of the Complete Dry Eye Relief drops, Retaine claims that their proprietary formula maintains the integrity of the tear film via “electrostatic attraction” (oppositely charged atoms/molecules sticking together).
The active ingredients in Retaine Complete Dry Eye Relief drops are light mineral oil and mineral oil, which are used as emollients to stop irritation and dryness. Inactive ingredients include cetalkonium chloride, glycerol, poloxamer 188, tris hydrochloride, tromethamine, tyloxapol, and water for injection.
Though the preservative-free formulation bodes well for all manner of people with dry eye disease, this particular purpose targets a niche population, where Rain eye drops are more all-encompassing.
Where to Buy and How Much?
Because Retaine is available at various high-profile retailers, both online (Amazon) and brick-and-mortar (Walgreens, Walmart, and more), prices vary slightly. The average price is around $22 for a box of 30 single-use containers.
Systane has been a fixture of the OTC eye drop industry for a while now, and have in that time amassed a comparatively broad product offering including night-use ointment, multi-dose drops, a “balance” eye drop formulation, eye gel, and more. As we mentioned in our How to Apply Eye Drops guide, this is one of the few high-profile brands that offers both lubricant eye drops and contact rewetting eye drops.
Systane’s Complete Lubricant Eye Drops use “nano-droplet” technology to stave off dryness and premature tear evaporation across the ocular surface. The active ingredient is propylene glycol (0.6%), and here is the inactive ingredient list:
Boric acid, dimyristoyl phosphatidylglycerol, edatate disodium, hydroxypropyl guar, mineral oil, polyoxl 40 stearate, POLYQUAD (polyquaternium-1) 0.001% preservative, sorbitan tristearate, sorbitol and purified water. May contain hydrochloric acid and/or sodium hydroxide to adjust pH.
Though Systane has a preservative-free eye drop formulation available, having any preservative-containing products in the current market may steer some prospects away. Still, their products are touted as safe and effective by most who use them.
Where to Buy and How Much?
Like Retaine, Systane drops are available at a broad selection of big-name retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Rite Aid, Sam’s Club, and more, so prices vary. A single 10mL container of the Complete Lubricant Eye Drops retails at approximately $12.99 across most of these vendors, with twin packs priced as low as $19.00.
Offering the largest product catalog of the four brands in review by a significant margin, Refresh has developed OTC products to address a broad range of issues and scenarios, including, but not limited to:
- Standard dryness and irritation
- Digital eye strain
- Contact lens rewetting
- Lipid layer deficiency (omega-3 formula)
Product types include gels, ointments and drops (including artificial tears).
Notably, parent company Allergan’s development of HydroCellTM technology, which uses a glycerin-based formulation to maintain healthy cell volume of the ocular surface while hydrating the eye, is the key selling point for many of their products.
Not all Refresh products are free of preservatives, but consumers still have several options to choose from.
Where to Buy and How Much?
On the brand’s official website, a 10mL container of Refresh RelievaTM PF (preservative-free) costs $16.49, and a box of 30 single-use containers costs $19.99. These products are also sold on Amazon and a variety of major brick-and-mortar retailers.
Buyer’s Guide: Everything You Need to Know
Now that you’ve got a better sense of what some of the eyecare industry frontrunners are offering in terms of OTC eye drops, we want to share with you our critical evaluation framework so you can continue to make more informed decisions with your purchases.
First and foremost, remember to prioritize preservative-free products, ideally with additional safety and reliability signals (e.g., lab testing results, sterilized containers, research supporting active ingredients, etc.).
Though they aren’t a 100% accurate indicator of a brand’s overall quality, real customer reviews can still provide context while bringing up important questions and quality indicators that the brand may or may not be meeting.
Even if you’re going with an over-the-counter product, consulting with an ophthalmologist may still be useful in steering you towards the type of product that is most appropriate for your situation.
We also recommend consulting with a doctor if you experience any worsening of symptoms or other adverse effects after using your OTC eye drops.
Finally, remember to maintain sterile practices at all times when applying eye drops, ensuring nothing touches the tip of the dropper and keeping clean wipes on hand.
With a high-quality product used properly and with careful monitoring of the results, you have a much greater chance of safely and effectively improving your dry eye disease symptoms.