Most people have approximately 150-200 eyelashes on the top of each eye and 50-100 on the bottom. They protect the eye from dust, debris, sun and general dirt and affect the airflow around the eye, protecting the surface of the eyeball, or cornea.
In short, although eyelashes might seem like bits of hair that you apply mascara to every morning, they are infinitely more important than that when it comes to our health rather than simply for aesthetic purposes.
Eyelashes are a good way of alerting us to potential health problems and as a result there are various things to look out for with our lashes:
‘If you find that your eyelashes have a crusty build up this could be a sign of blepharitis, or lid margin inflammation,’ says consultant oculoplastic surgeon, Dr Elizabeth Hawkes. ‘This condition affects the oil secretions to the ocular surface and causes the eye to water. It can also be a sign of eyelash mites, demodex, which become more common the older you get. They can also cause itching too.’
Eyelashes losing colour
‘The medical term for this is Poliosis and sometimes it’s nothing to worry about, however in some cases it can be a sign of bacteria infestation or a viral disease on the eyelids,’ advises Dr Hawkes. ‘It’s worth seeking professional medical advice from an ophthalmologist if you experience this because in rare cases it can be a sign of a more serious condition which could potentially result in blindness – called Vogt-koyonagi-harada syndrome.’
‘Because our bodies have a natural shedding cycle eyelashes usually only reach approximately 10mm in length,’ says Dr Hawkes. ‘Longer eyelashes can be a sign of health issues so seek the advice of a qualified medical practitioner if you are concerned about this.’
Eyelashes going in the wrong direction
Eyelashes going in the wrong direction, or misdirected lashes, is one of the biggest causes of blindness worldwide. ‘Chlamydia trachomatis can cause this although very rare in the UK. It can also be caused by chronic blepharitis,’ explains Dr Hawkes. ‘The condition can be treated with antibiotics or surgery if necessary. In the UK misdirected lashes are usually caused by inflammation of the eyelids or scarring disorders, such as blepharitis, so it’s important to seek medical attention if you begin to experience this,’ advises Dr Hawkes. Another cause of misdirected lashes is when an extra roll of skin in the lower eyelid causes the lashes to turn inwards, this occurs in children, often those of Chinese or Japanese ancestry. ‘Most will grow out of it but it can be addressed with surgery if not.’
Blepharitis is a chronic inflammatory condition of the eyelids, secondary to an overgrowth of bacteria on the eyelashes and eyelids.
‘The meibomian glands are situated in the upper and lower eyelids in close proximity to the eyelashes. They secrete lipid which is the outer layer of our tear film and protects the ocular surface,’ explains Dr Hawkes. ‘The symptoms of Blepharitis include red eye, burning, sticky eyes, excessive watering, ocular discomfort, light sensitivity and foreign body sensation. It can also cause excessive eyelid closure or twitching, ‘blepharospasm’, which sometimes requires regular botulinum toxin injections around the eye and brow region.
‘There is unfortunately no cure as such for blepharitis,’ explains Dr Hawkes. ‘And so the mainstay of treatment at all stages is lid hygiene to control the bacterial build-up. Other treatments such as antibiotics, steroids and ocular lubrication may also be necessary for different sequelae of the condition.’
Can eyelashes indicate Covid?
‘It’s recognized that upper respiratory tract infections may result in complications such as conjunctivitis. Covid-19 can potentially spread from the eyes, via particles generated by coughing and sneezing. These particles might cause infection at the conjunctiva which is a mucous membrane lining the ocular surface,’ says Dr Hawkes. ‘This highlights the need for wearing eye protection where possible to avoid droplets coming into contact with the ocular surface and maintaining hand cleanliness, as well as avoiding face touching.’
DID YOU KNOW?
- Eyelashes are the first hairs we grow and are developed at seven weeks in the womb.
- Eyelashes are made of the protein keratin, produced by a hair follicle and coated in sebum from the sebaceous gland.
- Like all hair they grow and then go through a cycle before falling out.
- They only grow about 10mm before falling out
- We lose between 1-4 eyelashes a day
- They get shorter and thinner, as well as lighter, as we age.