Whether they need glasses or not, most people understand what an optometrist does. The same doesn’t always apply for the optometrist’s in-office counterpart, the optician. Even people who have been wearing glasses or contacts for most of their lives might not know exactly what these eyecare professionals do. Here are 11 secrets about being an optician, some of which might change the way you see your glasses forever.
1. Opticians aren't salespeople, and they don’t get commission.
When you go to the eye doctor, you don’t just sit in the chair, read some letters off a chart at the far end of the room, and then walk out with a pair of glasses. After the optometrist determines your prescription, you’re typically directed to the office’s optician, who will help you pick out your next pair of glasses or contacts. Think of them as the pharmacist of the eyewear world: The doctor determines your generic prescription, but the optician is the one who fills it for you.
“I am the person that makes sure we get a frame that fits you, that is going to work for your prescription, and is going to last you,” explains Maayan Shuval, an optician at Eyedentity, an eye care practice in Kirkland, Washington.
And despite what some people seem to think, opticians aren't just there to direct you to the most expensive pair of frames in the office, or to up-sell you on the priciest add-ons. "People always assume we make commission and we want them to buy the most expensive thing," Shuval says. "I’ve never made commission."
Still, many customers think that opticians are just glorified salespeople out for more money. “The misperception comes from the idea that glasses are glasses or contacts are contacts, and they’re all the same,” says Steve Alexander, an optician in Arlington Heights, Illinois who worked as a practicing optician for 13 years and is currently a consultant with The Growth Cooperative, a national consulting firm for eye care providers.
But the upgrades that opticians offer can make a real difference for your vision, whether it’s transition lenses, anti-glare coatings, or another high-tech feature. “I think people think that the upgrades in lenses are kind of a scam, and they’re really not,” Alexander says. “The coatings make a significant difference in the physics of light and how light actually interacts with your glasses.”
2. Only some states require opticians to be licensed.
The requirements for becoming an optician vary significantly depending on where you live, and fewer than half the states require opticians to be licensed. Alexander, for instance, works in Illinois, where he’s not required to have a license, while Shuval works in Washington state, which does require licensure—meaning she had to do an apprenticeship and take a state exam in order to legally practice, and she now has to spend a certain number of hours each year doing continuing education classes to keep her license.
Even within states that require licenses, there are a lot of differences between the certification processes. Some states require opticians to be certified by the American Board of Opticianry and National Contact Lens Examiners (ABO-NCLE), a national credential that requires continuing education and expires every three years. Other states have their own certification processes with different requirements for continuing education hours, expiration periods, and more. That means that a practicing optician in one state can’t necessarily practice in another state without going through the whole certification process anew. (Some of the national optical chains require their opticians to be licensed regardless of the state they're in—Warby Parker, for instance, requires its opticians to obtain the American Board of Opticianry’s certification.)
Becoming licensed is typically a lot of work (not to mention some money) but it does help opticians keep up with the current research on eyes and eyewear. “[One] class that I attended was a two-hour course about vision therapy, and how a lot of what we’ve known about and practiced with regards to amblyopia—which people call a 'lazy eye'—is entirely incorrect,” Shuval explains. The class had a profound impact on her practice. “My whole world shifted upside down over the course of this two-hour class. [Amblyopia] is super reversible if you have the right information. That’s amazing.”
3. Many patients have unrealistic expectations of opticians …
Patients aren’t always realistic about how much eyewear will cost and what is available. One of the biggest mistakes people make, according to Shuval, is assuming that all glasses and contacts are the same, when in fact, lens types, coatings, and other adjustments make a huge difference in how you see. They often suffer from sticker shock, too.
“I’m here to help my patients see and look better,” Shuval says, but customers don’t always appreciate how big of a purchase new glasses can be. “It can be a really angry conversation because people are like, ‘Why are you charging $600 for glasses?’” Aside from the fact that you’re probably going to wear those glasses all day, every day for a year or more, that price seems a lot more reasonable when you remember that every pair of glasses is a custom, FDA-regulated medical device. “What people really don’t realize about eyewear is 100 percent of glasses made are custom-made,” she adds. “No two pairs that I make are alike.”
Furthermore, as patients get older and start to need bifocals, they often don’t understand the limits of modern optical technology. “People just want to put on glasses and say, ‘Oh my god, I can see,’” Shuval describes. But adjusting to a new pair of glasses can take weeks. Your brain gets used to compensating for certain vision deficiencies, and you have to get used to a new prescription. And in some cases, lens technology still isn’t good enough to replicate the natural abilities of the eye. When it comes to technology like progressive bifocals, patients actually need to be taught how to use the lens, for instance.
4. … Especially when it comes to contact lenses.
Alexander says many patients get upset when they’re told that their prescription for contact lenses will expire after a year, and that they’ll have to come back into the office in order to get a new one. “What patients don’t consider is that you are putting a medical device into your face,” he says, “and if they’re not properly managed it can lead to serious complications—it can lead to infections and ulcers and corneal issues.” Patients don’t necessarily understand that they're paying for vital preventative care: “It’s a medical device in an incredibly sensitive part of your body," he explains.
5. Opticians are obsessive about fit.
Adam Bentley, an Optical Field Leader at Warby Parker based in San Francisco, says his biggest pet peeve as an optician doesn’t occur in the office—it’s when he sees crooked eyewear around town. “I’ve often found myself looking at a crooked pair of glasses on the subway [and] wishing I could walk up and fix them,” he admits.
6. Opticians often choose which frames their stores carry.
In private practices, the optician might be responsible for more than just showing customers the latest glasses. They might also be the one determining what frames the shop offers. “I personally am the frame buyer for my store,” Shuval explains. That means she can answer a whole host of questions for customers beyond the realm of fit or function, including queries about where the glasses are made. That has become increasingly important as more and more customers become aware of the eyewear monopolies. Luxottica, an Italian frame company, makes an estimated 25 percent of the frames in the world, while Essilor, a lens company based in France, makes an estimated 45 percent of prescription lenses. Many blame the corporations' vast reach for driving the price of glasses up to artificially high rates. (The two corporations also merged in 2018.)
But Shuval says that buying glasses from shops like Warby Parker isn't the only way to escape the EssilorLuxottica monopoly. “I seek out the small companies [that make frames] and I can tell you about all the designers and factories where they’re made, because that’s important to me,” she says.
7. Many private opticians aren’t fans of online retailers.
In fact, despite the accessible price points, neither Shuval nor Alexander expressed much enthusiasm for the idea of buying glasses online. The main issue is that being fitted for glasses isn’t only a matter of finding a frame that won’t fall off your face. Online shopping can offer very inexpensive options, as Shuval explains, and “sometimes they’re good options for people, but it’s [about] making sure that custom medical device that’s sitting on your face all day is actually going to be helpful.”
One of the roadblocks patients run into while shopping for glasses online has to do with measuring the position of their pupils. Opticians measure your eyes to make sure that the centers of your lenses are positioned exactly over your pupils. While patients can try their best to measure this at home on their own, it’s not the same as having it measured in an office by a professional.
Almost any online glasses shop is going to ask for your pupillary distance (PD), which is the horizontal distance between your eyes. You might be asked for your binocular pupillary distance, which is the distance between your two pupils, or the monocular distance, which is the distance from the bridge of your nose to your pupil—expressed in two different measurements, since faces aren’t always symmetrical. However, those measurements aren't everything. “In order to make a really good lens you need more information than that,” Shuval says.
In fact, there is a secondary measurement that most online shops don’t ask about—the vertical measurement, known as the ocular center height. “[The] ocular center is a top-to-bottom measurement for the patient, and that can’t be measured until you have the frame,” Alexander explains. “If you don’t know where their eye sits in a given frame before the lenses are made, then while the optical center might be aligned left to right, it’s not going to be aligned top to bottom.”
If your lenses aren’t positioned over your pupils correctly, you won’t see as well, and the eye strain can cause headaches and other discomfort. Lenses that don’t fit you right might make you feel nauseous, affect your depth perception, and more.
While you can get your ocular center measured by an optician at a Warby Parker retail store, buying glasses from Warby Parker’s online shop doesn’t require ocular height, just pupillary distance. In response to questions about this policy, Warby Parker provided the following statement: “A common misconception is that this measurement is required for all orders, when in fact it’s not … For online orders, we’ve developed tools and proprietary technology that allows us to help predict this type of measurement based on previous customer data. We also have in-house opticians to help online customers in the event that customers need extra assistance.”
8. Opticians love to answer questions …
“I love when patients come and ask me, 'Is there any cool new technology we should be looking at?’” Shuval says. Opticians are experts in their field and spend a lot of time keeping abreast of the latest technological updates in eyewear. Most love to share that knowledge. “We like getting to explain stuff,” she explains, “and I think it’s really important for people to be educated consumers.”
9. … Except for one particular question.
Glasses are so personalized and there are so many possible options that it’s impossible to quote someone a single price tag, but that doesn’t stop patients from asking. “One of the more common questions that I used to get as an optician [that used to] drive me crazy,” Alexander explains, “would be, ‘How much are glasses?’ And it would be through gritted teeth that I answered, ‘Well, it depends on the frame that you choose and the lenses you need.’ But it’s a question that never made any sense to me because you’d never call up a car dealer and say, ‘How much is a car?’”
10. They'll gladly fix your glasses ... if you're a patient.
If you buy your glasses from an optician, adjusting and servicing those frames (for example, if they need to be straightened or have a screw replaced) is usually part of the initial cost. However, if you’re not a patient or bought your glasses online, you shouldn’t expect to get free repairs from the office.
“When an office charges for an optician's time or replacement of parts patients will get up in arms about it,” Alexander says. “If it’s somebody who wasn’t a customer of ours and has not taken care of their eyewear, to come in and get upset at being charged for a service we’re providing is always very frustrating for me.” That said, he says he would never charge one of his longtime patients for repairs.
But if you do need to get your glasses serviced and you're not already a patient, any charges will likely be minimal—at most, he says, you’ll probably need to pay $10 or so. So don’t be afraid to walk into your local optician’s office and ask. Just don’t get too snarky when they ask you to break out your wallet.
11. They don’t always follow their own advice.
“I clean my glasses with my shirt or whatever is lying around,” one anonymous optician tells Mental Floss. “It's a big optician ‘no, no.’” If you really want to take care of your specs, you’ll clean them with a microfiber cloth and lens spray instead, and always keep them safely tucked away in their case when you aren’t wearing them.